June’s reads come a little later than planned, much like May’s did, and for much the same reason. Life has a very bad habit of getting in the way of writing, but thankfully not reading of which I managed at least a little in quantity and a great deal in quality.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
By no exaggeration, this is one of the best, most important books I will read this year and will happily live on my bookshelves for the rest of my living days. When I began this book, in the days which followed the historic referendum on women’s bodily autonomy in Ireland, I had no idea how pertinent it would be.
Over the course of school and university I spent over a decade consuming stories, fact and fiction, about 20th century Ireland and the changing tides of culture, language and politics which led to the promise of freedom and brought, perhaps inevitably, just another form of bondage. It was the subject of my dissertation – post-revolution Ireland, the disappointment and betrayal felt by those who had fought for a romantic, socialist vision of their country, only to find themselves in a world divided, the power suddenly in the hands of the church. Reading John Boyne’s story of Cyril, a young gay man growing up in Ireland, I couldn’t help but wonder how different that tale might have been if the vision of Ireland that had been fought for had actually materialised.
As it is, Cyril’s story is a sorry one and I don’t doubt, a common one. On the face of the facts alone – shame, guilt, secrets, violence, murder – it is a bleak, horrifying story which should shame the powers which made Ireland such a cruel world, but with Boyne’s touch of magic, it is also outrageously funny, full of the beauty of human kindness, softness, inexplicable oddness.
Ireland’s history is full of secrets, darkness, shadows in which the most unimaginable things have occurred. Mercifully the light is beginning to break through the cracks, stories are being told, secrets unearthed and the bravery of those who are making it possible is heroic. Stories like Cyril’s, and his mother’s, and Sean’s and Jack’s, Bastiaan’s and Mrs Hennessy’s, even Julian’s, they are too common and too important, to be dismissed to the annals of history, or to be treated without humanity. The horror and humour must come hand-in-hand, the moments of coldness and love both have a part to play in the narrative.
The absurdities of Cyril’s life – his adoptive parents, the sliding doors which bring his and his mother’s tracks so close and agonisingly far apart at every turn – may jar with the brutalities with which they are intertwined but it only reflects the incredulous hypocrisy of a country that held Catholicism and its priests as sacrosanct while burying the evidence of their crimes and shamed anyone who deviated from the virtues which they preached, if not practised.
“Maybe there were no villains in my mother’s story at all. Just men and women, trying to do their best by each other, and failing.”
The Tyranny of Lost Things by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett
The perfect reading for a heatwave, this first novel by journalist Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is wonderful. Bringing the stories of two aimless generations together through the foggy memories of Harmony which begin to clear during a hot summer of riots hangovers.
I really felt this book in my bones. I was a recent graduate, drifting through bar jobs and flat shares in Liverpool when this book was set. The economy was in the pits, my degree was barely worth the paper it was written on and I had no idea what I was going to do with myself, but it was OK because nobody knew what they were going to do. So they poured pints and served coffees to pay the rent and played in bands or wrote blogs or established theatre companies.
“All the friends … seemed to be writing screenplays or books of autobiographical essays or running pop-feminist cultural criticism blogs and art collectives (‘I’m a waitress,’ I said, when I was asked what it was I did by one of her drag queen hangers on. ‘A waitress and what?’ asked the drag queen, yelling above the disco beat. ‘You can’t just be a waitress. Everyone’s “—- and something.”
It was a wonderful, ridiculous time. I remember thinking at the time, that at the same age, my parents had me, a babe in arms, although they were just as skint and probably attending as many parties. It was oddly comforting to think that there was a synchronicity at play, which is perhaps what Harmony seeks in this book – comfort isn’t exactly what she finds though.
The darkness which glides just below the surface of this narrative, the discomfort of something unsaid, something as yet unknown, gives an eerie quality to the hazy, desultory atmosphere of this summer of love. Drawn back to her first home, an old commune in North London now divided into run-down flats, it’s hard to say whether Harmony is searching for stability or chaos. The people she finds, Lou and Josh, are drifting similarly displaced, equally lost yet come from very different places.
Northern Josh is a familiar archetype, sarcastic in defence, working class chip on his shoulder who enjoys demonstrating his intellectual edge over the vacuous types they meet at parties, yet also kind.
Lou is tragic. Posh, upper class, unloved, or so she would say, she lives on cocktails and drugs, prescribed or otherwise, growing skinnier and more glamorous to those who don’t look beyond the facade. Eating disorders, self harm, the evidence is clear to Harmony and Josh who choose to see it, who try to help. We all know a Lou, there is always a Lou not quite in the gang but radiating somewhere on the periphery, always welcome yet never choosing to stay. They bring another level of bedlam to parties, disappear on nights out only to return with a bottle of vodka and amazing stories of people they just met in the toilets. They move at a million miles an hour and get frustrated when others can’t keep up, they get bored, move on, go incognito for weeks only to return as if nothing ever happened, desperate to hear all and to share their, more interesting, stories to a enrapt audience.
There’s a shade of Lou in Harmony’s parents too, something insatiable – a need for people, for fun, beauty, something more – which always keeps them at a distance somehow, always leaving Harmony with something lacking – security perhaps? Unconditional love?
“That’s the thing about fathers. They sprinkle you with enough love early on that you’ll know forever what you’re missing.”
It is the characters which really make this book shine. I’m sure for readers more familiar with London, the city itself has a stronger sense of character too, it certainly made me pine for another visit, but the people are universal. Even the walk-on characters, who we see less of, feel familiar to me, background players in your own story, just serving a purpose. You might call that lazy writing but I think it’s true. Every generation has their own archetypes who pass through their life remaining nameless, faceless, yet leaving some impression, making an impact that we remember for right or wrong reasons. Sometimes in the telling of our own stories, other people become devices, stereotypes who serve a purpose and then pass out of our own worlds but that doesn’t make them less human. We can decide on the one-dimensional image we have of someone but that doesn’t mean it’s true, or that they won’t deviate from the lines we’ve drawn. Sometimes we write people off, make judgements we’re forced to alter or worse still, accept that we were right about all along.
Cosslett acknowledges that in Harmony’s relationship with her parents. In discovering the truth of her own past, Harmony has to reshape the narratives she’s drawn for herself and reconsider the version of her parents that she’s known. She’s forced to see the bigger picture and to accept it.
“He saw me, and I started to see him, not as a hero or a villain in a children’s story as I had had it, or as the prisoner of uncontrollable events he was in his version, but as a man with flaws. He had disappointed me, and I love him. The two would have to coexist.”
This quote, from the final pages of The Tyranny of Lost Things, made me realise just how similar the book was to my previous read, The Heart’s Invisible Furies. We are the lead characters in our own narratives and we can’t know the complete backstories of every person we meet, but it can make a big difference to get to know those who matter, the unknown stories which impact us most – our parents, family, people who knew us when we were little, before memories could be fully formed.
This book is both a brilliant summer read and a meaty, thought-provoking piece of literature. Thoroughly enjoyed and very much recommended.
With thanks to Sandstone Press for the pre-sale copy.