Review: “A History of Loneliness” by John Boyne

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I’m not sure what Boyne was trying to say with A History of Loneliness because I got absolutely nothing out of it. Was it supposed to be a family-history? Then it failed because none of the characters got enough depth for me to care about them. Not even Odran, the narrator of the story.

I can’t quite bring myself to call him a character because that implies some kind of agency, somebody who does something but Odran is just there. Things happen to him, he does as he is told, and rarely does something on his own accord.

Only towards the end of the book he suddenly takes action and demands to be let back in his teaching-job (he did that for most of his life but then gets transferred to a parish). The thing is: that comes completely out of the blue. I had no idea that he felt so strongly about teaching. I had no idea that he felt anything at all, let alone strongly. In the book he only mentioned the school a few times but only to say that the library shelving-system is probably no longer in order. He never talks about the students he had there or gives any indication that he misses them or teaching in general.

I’ve spent over 300 pages with Odran and still feel like I know nothing about him. What does he want? Does he enjoy anything apart from shelving books alphabetically? The other characters also feel less like real people and more like symbols. Odran’s father for failed existences, his mother for blind religious faith that borders on mania, his sister for somebody who tries to escape both (but suffers still…this is a John Boyne-novel after all. Everybody has to suffer) and his nephews for a new generation (that still suffers). None of them are anything beyond that.

The novel also fails as a commentary on the role of Catholicism in Ireland. It seems like it tries to tell us something but it only shows things. It shows the sexism of the church (over and over). It shows us Odran’s early days as a priest where priests were held in such high esteem that even pregnant women and elderly people jumped up to offer him their seats and the blind trust people put in the church until not so long ago: the boy is acting badly, send him to the priest once a week, that’ll help. Later it shows us the more recent time when he gets beaten up after trying to help a boy who lost his mother in a store because all priests are paedophiles.
And that’s it. I could have gotten the same out of reading an in-depth article on the topic. Was Boyne trying to say anything with it? Of course I wasn’t expecting the novel to offer the perfect solution on how to deal with such a complex issue or even explain how to stop such a tragedy from ever happening again but I simply expected more than the book gave me. The end felt very unsatisfactory, as if I’d read a very long (and boring) prologue that sets up a lot of problems but instead of people dealing with these problems it just stopped.

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