The heart of this novel by John Boyne, known for his bestselling novel The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, is set Ireland, and even when the characters leave Ireland, it is still a novel about Ireland.
“As they walked toward the bridge, my mother looked over the side of the railings into the River Liffey, a filthy determination of brown and green making its way urgently toward the Irish Sea as if it wanted out of the city as quickly as possibly, leaving the priests, the pubs and the politics far behind it.”
The ugly river (in Ulysses, I was imagining it much nicer) is just the beginning of an unflattering portrayal of Ireland — because this story is told by a gay man coming of age who was born to an out of wedlock mother, and these circumstances make him feel unwelcome and unhappy in his country.
Eventually he “gets out” and finds the rest of the world not like this. As his new friend says:
“‘What’s wrong with you people? he asked, looking at me as if I was clinically insane. “What’s wrong with Ireland? Are you all just fucking nuts over there, is that it? Don’t you want each other to be happy?”
No,” I said, finding my country a difficult one to explain. “No, I don’t think we do.”
I realize my summary thus far is more depressing than appealing…and I am not even mentioning some of the saddest story lines here…
But please trust me that the powers of the universe depicted in this book and the pull of one’s “home” even with all its faults show survival beyond heartbreak to make for a beautiful story.
This book is about friendship, redemption, and love, and the families we can create in the countries we love in spite of it all. It has been one of my favorite reads of the year.
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