A History of Loneliness

Written by John Boyne
Review by Doug Kemp

Odran Yates narrates the story of his life in Ireland. As a young boy in the early 1960s through to the present day in a series of non-chronological chapters, Odran’s story represents the movements that have changed Ireland’s society so profoundly. It is a sobering and ultimately pessimistic story. Odran is a Roman Catholic priest, having been pushed towards the “calling” by his mother, who became obsessively religious following a deeply traumatic family incident when Odran was a young child. Having served some of his training in Rome, and then the Vatican, Odran finds a comfortable niche as a teacher to a boy’s school in Dublin. But his life is changed when he is moved to a parish, to fill a gap left by the abrupt departure of his seminary room-mate and best friend Tom Cardle. It is the reasons for Cardle’s departure that causes the unravelling of much that Father Yates believes in.

The reader very soon guesses what is behind Tom Cardle’s removal as well as an incident involving Odran’s nephew Aidan. Odran finally accepts that he has to address the lack of engagement he has with the world and the sexual scandals that are engulfing the Church in Ireland, in which he has been unwittingly drawn. Odran is naïve and rather likeable, but also somewhat to blame as deep at the back of his mind he was aware of what was going on but did nothing to raise awareness of the scandal.

There are a couple of possible historical errors, but this is a moving and rather shocking novel and, as ever with John Boyne’s fiction, wonderfully well written.