The word “shame” appears twice on the first page of John Boyne’s novel of Irish priesthood, A History of Loneliness. The Rev. Odran Yates’s shame is both personal and institutional. As he tells his story in a scrambled chronology that covers his life from 1964 to 2013, he confronts the sources of the failure that marks his 35 years as a priest.
His is a sad tale, because Odran is an essentially good man whose vague but earnest ambition in becoming a priest was “to help people somehow.” He is guilty of no crime; his intentions are generous and sincere. His faults, however—naïve trust, willful blindness and a spectacular lack of imagination—keep him from recognizing the scandals that have rocked the church, especially in Ireland, until long after everyone else has acknowledged them. Though he is an appealing narrator and an engaging story teller, Odran’s capacity for self-reflection and self-criticism comes too late and pales in comparison with his capacity for self-deception. Admittedly nostalgic, he revels in “the comfort of [his] childhood.” But when his childhood is revealed, it is dominated by an alcoholic father, an embittered mother, a younger sibling who suffers a grotesque death and a lascivious priest whom Odran’s mother summons when she finds her 16-year-old son entertaining an English girl of dubious reputation. The priest unscrupulously persuades Odran that he has a vocation.
This manner of reconstructing reality, of obfuscating whatever does not fit comfortably into his ordered world view (it’s no coincidence that Odran spends 27 years as librarian at Terenure College), perdures through Odran’s adulthood. His family changes; the church changes; the priesthood changes; and Odran can hardly keep up. He feels as if he has “gone to sleep in one country and woken up in another.” In the early days of his priesthood, priests are so revered that a pregnant woman offers him a seat on a crowded train and a pensioner buys him a sandwich he doesn’t want. Even his mother addresses him as “Father.” Thirty years later, anyone in clerical garb is suspect. Walking through St. Stephen’s Green, Odran hears whispers of “pedophile”; salesgirls exchange “a look and a smirk” when he passes. Odran’s innocent attempt to help a lost, panicked 5-year-old lands him in a police station, where he is insulted and maltreated. In his own parish, he cannot even let into the church a group of altar boys shivering in the rain until a chaperone arrives and Odran’s presence among the boys is “safe.”
Most painful for Odran is his estrangement from a beloved nephew, the sources of which come fully to light only late in the novel, and his friendship with his seminary roommate, Thomas Cardle, forced into the priesthood at the insistence of a brutal father. Cardle’s frequent parish reassignments raise no red flags for Odran, perhaps because he cannot think ill of a friend or because his own inexperience has rendered him oblivious. When a parishioner approaches Odran for advice about a son who may be gay, Odran’s response is compassionate and wise, but he wonders why people come to him, who, he admits, “knew nothing of life.” Is his ignorance genuine? Is it innocence? Or is it a defense against unsettling suspicions that he will admit neither publicly nor privately?
Boyne treats Odran with admirable sensitivity and understanding even as the unintentional damage that Odran clumsily precipitates becomes clear—finally!—to Odran himself. Boyne’s real contempt is directed at the church hierarchy, bishops who bristle with indignation at the media’s lack of deference and see themselves as victims of an organized effort to undermine their authority. An easy target, perhaps, but by telling the story through the perspective of this troubled, struggling, not-very-bright but in no way malevolent cleric, Boyne avoids melodramatic excesses and overwrought clichés.
Boyne’s narrative does get sidetracked briefly by an underdeveloped and unconvincing subplot in which Odran’s infatuation with a Roman waitress is linked to the death of Pope John Paul I. That story belongs in another novel. But scene for scene, Boyne is so compelling a writer in his fluid use of language and in his efficient characterization that the misstep causes the book no lasting harm.
Though the nonchronological structure initially demands some patience, it effectively teases out a degree of mystery and suspense. When, in the last three chapters, Boyne abandons the irregular time frame and returns to chronology, the effect is powerful, as a series of long-delayed confrontations explores the possibilities of grace, forgiveness and redemption—and their limits. These emotionally resonant scenes resist the sentimental resolutions that in the hands of a lesser writer they might invite. For both this flawed but decent fictional character and for the real, imperfect Catholic Church he represents, Boyle’s novel considers, poignantly but unequivocally, important questions of complicity, of responsibility and, ultimately, of salvation.