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Book review: “A History of Loneliness” by John Boyne

John Boyne’s 2015 novel A History of Loneliness was a difficult book for me to read, mainly because it deals with the crimes of hundreds of pedophile priests who preyed on young boys and teens, but also because it is a flawed book.

Given the subject, I don’t think it is inappropriate for me to start this review with an apology.

I apologize to all the victims of molester-priests and their families. I am ashamed that these men corrupted their positions of trust in the Catholic Church. I am ashamed that hierarchical leaders of the Catholic Church turned a blind eye to their crimes for so long. I am ashamed that my church which teaches love, compassion, community and strength of character was the setting where these men carried out violence on innocent children.

These men sinned, and, because I am a member of a church in which they operated, I am a sinner, too.

These crimes, as committed by rogue priests in Ireland, are the subject of A History of Loneliness. Its central character is Father Odran Yates, He is not one of the pedophiles, but he goes through more than three decades of his priesthood ignoring all of the signs of what men he knew, including his best friend, were doing. Indeed, refusing to face his own one incident of being molested by a priest.

Boyne focuses tightly on Yates until, near the end of the book, he has a variety of characters, including victims, express their white-hot fury against the molesters and the Catholic Church.

This is the core of the book. It is an indictment.


A metaphor and a flaw

Boyne uses Yates as a metaphor for the Irish Catholic Church, and that, for me, is the central flaw of his novel.

Boyne isn’t writing about black and white questions, but about black and black people. There are the blackest — the pedophiles. But, then, also black are the bad priests and bad leaders, often enablers of the molesters. Similarly black are the priests such as Yates who refuse to see.

That’s the church world he has put on his pages.

This is clear from the beginning of A History of Loneliness, and it carries all the way through. And, certainly, all of these — the pedophiles, the enablers and the ignorers — have sinned greatly.

As the central character, Yates is far from attractive. Boyne gives him a back story in which his failed actor-father drowns a younger son and then swims out to his own death. He also gives him an infatuation with an Italian woman in Rome that involves a great deal of skulking and apparently little actual lust. And a connection with the short-lived Pope John Paul whose death after just a month in office is made, by Boyne, to look sinister.

Really, though, Yates is a milquetoast. He’s smart enough to be the one member of his seminary class who is sent to Rome to study, but he makes no use of the opportunity. Indeed, he makes little use of the opportunity to live, as opposed to get through, his life.

He is innocent of ambition. I use “innocent” on purpose here because, throughout the novel, he is described as “innocent” as in “clueless.” “Aimless” would also be a good word.

As a teen, he has a flirtation with a girl his age, but, really, he’s just letting it all happen to him. And, when his mother discovers them fooling around, it’s no loss to him not to see the girl again. And he’s fine — grand! — when his mother tells him that she’s had a vision that he is supposed to go into the seminary. Grand!

After ordination in Rome, he returns to Ireland, but doesn’t do parish work. Instead, he’s assigned to teach English and oversee the library at an elite high school where, for a quarter of a century, he is happy — and energetic — as a clam.


What I don’t agree with

I have been a Catholic for 66 years. I studied for nine years to be a Catholic priest, leaving the seminary four years short of ordination. (That celibacy thing, you know.)

I was never molested, but I did know priests who, later, were convicted of pedophilia.

It was wrong, it was sinful, it was evil for those priests and all the others to prey on young boys and teens, to use their positions of authority and trust to do violence to those children.

That’s Boyne’s indictment. And I agree with him.

What I don’t agree with is his depiction of the Catholic Church as an organization made up solely of predators and their enablers.

True, Boyne does mention in passing a couple of priests who seem to Yates to be good priests. But they are blips on the screen. Instead, there are craven bishops, and rapacious seminarians, and all those ordained pedophiles.


Doing priestly work

True, Boyne does make the central character a non-molester. Yet, as far as I can tell, he does little or no priestly ministry whatsoever, at least none that’s depicted.

Nowhere in A History of Loneliness is there an important or even secondary character — one with a few lines, at least — who is doing priestly work. Who is preaching. Who is counseling. Who is baptizing babies. Who is celebrating Mass. Who is celebrating a funeral.

OK, yes, there is one funeral Mass. It’s for Yates’ mother. Yates concelebrates iwith his best friend — the pedophile.

What I’m saying is that the Catholic Church of which I’m a member — for all the shame we all have for what the molester-priests have done — has many good men who are called Father.

There are good men who are compassionate activists for social justice, challenging and consoling preachers, nuanced spiritual guides and morally principled, warmly human people.

As Yates realizes — duh! — at the end of the novel, he isn’t one of these guys. He’s self-centered and afraid of life. A walking vacuum.

Yes, there are priests like that.

But I know a lot who aren’t.

I wish Boyne had found room for them in A History of Loneliness.

Patrick T. Reardon


  • Carol
    Posted September 3, 2018 at 10:50 am

    ‘but about black and black people’ – don’t get this at all !!

    • Post Author
      Patrick T. Reardon
      Posted September 3, 2018 at 12:51 pm

      That term “black and black people” is in contrast with “black and white questions.” It was perhaps inelegant, but I was trying to make a point that Boyne wasn’t seeing things in black and white. Normally, if you’re not seeing things in black and white, you’re seeing them in a more nuanced way….with all the gray shades. That’s good. In this case, though, I felt that Boyne went beyond the starkness of “this is a good guy” and “this is a bad guy” to paint everyone as a bad guy, everyone was black. That’s what I meant. I’m sorry it wasn’t clear. Pat

  • Jean Farmer
    Posted August 17, 2019 at 10:13 pm

    The book was not attempting to give a fully comprehensive view of all Priests in the Catholic Church (good and bad) but focusing on the issue at hand and how it was dealt with by Church hierarchy. It is indeed one-sided and perhaps gives a poor impression generally of Catholicism. However, it is unfortunately accurate about paedaphilia among some priests. It is a novel; a gripping read and very moving, but after all, a constructed story around an emotive subject. There are indeed more good priests and much good achieved by the Catholic Church ……….. in spite of the archaic rules that govern their lives.

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