By John Boyne
Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.
It has been a habit recently not to read fiction. This is very different from my past when I read every fiction book I could find whether it was Isaac Bashevis Singer, Graham Greene, Francois Mauriac, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jennifer Egan or Sandra Cisneros- I read a plethora of fiction. Now I primarily read non-fiction so when I picked up another fiction book that was entitled: A History of Loneliness I was a bit surprised at my choice. As a psychologist, I thought it was possibly a self-help book. It was written by an Irish writer similar to Roddy Doyle, I was intrigued. In the first chapter of the book, we are in Ireland, in a small home with a small yet struggling family. The narrator is Father Odran Yates, a man of faith who has served as the chaplain of a boy’s school in Ireland for nearly thirty years. From the first time he realizes that he is drawn to the seminary, he holds onto a sense of contentment. This sense of contentment lasts throughout his life. He stood by the choices he has made. At Tenenure College he tends the library, teaches literature and cheers from the sidelines at rugby games He excelled in his studies and served as the night attendant for Pope John Paul I’s brief papacy. Oldran has little ambition as he likes his work and what that entails. He enjoys the ‘erudite conclave’.
When the scandal breaks out and engulfs the church in the early twenty-first century, Odran is withdrawn from his beloved school to serve a parish whose priest (Odran’s best friend, Tom) has been removed from his parish. As the Catholic Church becomes increasingly suspect, Odran finds that he is now considered a pariah by the faithful those who often offered him a meal or a free space on a train. Odran becomes leery in regards to being out in public. He even tries to help a young child in a department store find the young child’s Mother and is arrested briefly. He notices how different the climate in the society in which he lives. He begs the Archbishop to allow him to return to Tenenure College and he is granted the request. He returns and gets busy in putting the volumes in order through the help of some of the boys who are part of the school and particularly good at technology, something that Odran doesn’t want to get involved in. In the meantime, Fr. Tom, his best friend has been arrested for pedophilia and is incarcerated. Odran is horrified but Tom tells him all the signs were there. He had told many from the beginning that he did not want to be a priest, his own father made him and returned him to the seminary when he indicated that he wanted to be at home. Tom also tells Odran that he has been naïve and unable to realize the depth of his illness. Tom knew he was wrong but cajoled Odran to realize his inability to really be a part of life and a part of the priesthood. The book is very well written but somewhat dark. It stays true to its title and much of the closing part of the book helps the reader to see the loneliness that both these men endured. Tom living in a small apartment under the auspice of the Guarda and Odran deciding that he cannot hide intellectually, psychologically or spiritually in the boy’s school for the rest of his life. In light of the new wave of sexual abuse of children in America, one can see the power of a book like this to help others heal.