The History of Loneliness by John Boyne was an interesting book to be reading right now. Boyne is best known for The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and like that novel, it is told from the point of view of an “innocent” on the side of the guilty. The History of Loneliness is the story of an Irish priest who is watching the Catholic Church crumble in light of what appears to be systemic sex abuse of children by his counterparts.
I say it is an interesting book to read at this time because just a few weeks ago, a Pennsylvania grand jury released a report detailing horrific abuse of more than 1000 children at the hands of more than 300 Catholic priests. According to the report, “[p]riests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades. Monsignors, auxiliary bishops, bishops, archbishops, cardinals have mostly been protected; many, including some named in this report, have been promoted.” The report only covers six dioceses in one state.
This report comes 15 years after the Boston Globe’s investigative reporting team won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service after exposing their city’s widespread child sex abuse (and cover up) by a number of local and prominent Roman Catholic priests. That story was later turned into a movie, Spotlight, that won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2016.
Set in Ireland, The History of Loneliness follows the life of Father Odran Yates who, after a difficult childhood, becomes a priest, serving a year in Rome that includes a special assignment for the Pope. Father Yates finds his most rewarding service in the library of a boy’s school but he is eventually sent to a local parish when the priest there, who also happened to have been Father Yates’ roommate in seminary, is suddenly moved out.
The story bounces around in time – from Yates’ childhood in the 60’s, seminary in the 70’s, and various points of his adult life during service to the church up until 2012 – which could have been difficult had it not been so effective a form in helping the reader come to understand, just as the narrator does, what is going on in the church.
As I mentioned before, the narrator is “innocent.” He is not, like his seminary roommate, a child abuser. But, as with the public’s outrage (and mine) over the real life examples, the novel explores the varying degrees of guilt of those around the abusers – those who know but believe the Church is subject to a different standard than the law; those who know but feel helpless to act; those who should know but ignore all signs.
Father Yates is in that last category – the most complicated of all positions – and it was somewhat cathartic to take the journey of understanding with him. That said, I’m an outsider to the Catholic Church and its victims. I would be interested to discuss with those who are not.
Regardless, Boyne’s writing is as beautiful as it is astute, and many well-drawn characters provide much to contemplate. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
I listened to this book on audio, and the narrator Gerard Doyle was superb.
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