Ireland 1945. Catherine is 16, unmarried and pregnant. She is chased away from her village from a priest during mass in front of the whole congregation and determined to start a new life in Dublin. The baby, however, will have to be up for adoption, a loving couple will give him a better start in life than a fallen woman. Thus, baby Cyril arrives at the Averies’. Maud and Charles are not especially cordial, but they care for him and in Julian he finds a friend for his life. Even though the circumstances of his upbringing are much better than expected in the first place, Cyril’s life is not meant to be easy: already as a young teenager he realises that he is much more interested in the boys around him than in the girls – an impossibility in Catholic Ireland. Will he ever be able to find real love? Or didn’t he already find it in his best friend Julian?
John Boyne’s novel is a documentary of the 20th century and the development of morals in Catholic European countries. From the very beginning with strict rules which were much more important than the individual’s suffering, over the 60s and 70s with free love and the detachment from all moral considerations, to the 80s and the uncontrollable and unpredictable virus which threatened the world and made people think over their behaviour until our time where – at least in the novel – new ways of understanding the concepts of family and belonging have formed. The protagonist Cyril is strong enough to lead the reader through the times and to overcome obstacles with his gentle and open-minded manners and attitude towards life. He is simply lovable, still at times, you pity and feel sympathy for him because luck does not really seem to be on his side.
Apart from the plot which I found quite interesting since you get an exemplary insight into what homosexuals had to go through in the 20s century, it is Boyne’s style of writing which makes this novel stand out. Sometimes, you could just laugh out loud, e.g. when Cyril explains how his adoptive parents decided on his name: “They had named me Cyril for a spaniel they’d once owned and loved.” (pos. 875) or when he recollects how his father explains him about the birds and the bees (which is just not suitable for any quotation even though it is hilarious). Boyne has quite a limited set of characters considering the number of pages of the novel, they reappear, meet again and again, at times it seemed as if there were maybe too many coincidences to believe it, but even nevertheless it all fit together well and finished in a round and complete ending.
Admittedly, I was occasionally reminded of Hanya Yanagihara’s novel “A little life”, in both novels we find a homosexual as protagonist who has to struggle all his life due to his sexual orientation, societal standards and expectations and who is highly sensitive and perceptive for other people’s feelings and emotions. Yet, the novels are quite different. Where I could feel physical pain in Yanagihara’s, I enjoyed the light tone of Boyne’s novel and the fact that he manages to tell a serious and sometimes arduous story in such a light, amusing way.