A History of Loneliness
“I simply wanted to be left alone.” Those words are spoken by Father Odran Yates, the main character and narrator in John Boyne’s novel, A History of Loneliness. The book should come with a warning: Be prepared to wrestle with religion in this deeply moving account of a priest’s struggle to reconcile his faith and his feelings against the backdrop of a growing scandal of pedophilia in the church.
Odran Yates is an Irish ordained priest whose 27-year professional life as a college educator gets interrupted by a mandate to return to daily religious practice at a time when sordid scandals are affecting the Catholic church. At the heart of his loneliness is a depressing upbringing and deep questions about why his beloved religion has fallen victim to sexual crimes.
Yates wrestles with his own demons and the growing awareness that his friend and fellow priest could be guilty of a crime. The stigma of a priest engaging in sexual misconduct haunts Yates. At one point Yates is mistaken for being a pedophile after rescuing a lost boy and the incident leaves him in tears. “There was a time,” he think, “when a priest was trusted . . . now you couldn’t talk to a child without getting strange looks.”
In many ways, The History of Loneliness follows the theme of plays and movies like Doubt, and the lesser known film, Calvary starring Brendan Gleeson as an Irish priest, Father James, confronted by an agonizing life and death dilemma as he confronts a man who says he was sexually abused by a priest. In that sense, the book breaks little new ground. But it does elevate the human struggle around faith which always makes for good literature. In fairness, this novel can be a struggle to get through, both because the time sequences shift by chapter in a non-sequential way, and because the theme is about struggle—the internal contradictions of faith, religion, and sexuality.
The major strength and weakness of Boyne’s novel is its unrelenting pulse in its depiction of the main character’s self-doubt. That self-doubt often leaves the reader as confused as the character is.
After a painful confrontation in the novel between a young seminary student and a Catholic priest, the main character, Yates, is unsure what to think. “We were respectful boys, quiet lads, we didn’t argue, we didn’t put up a fight. I look back and am not sure why that was the case; after all, we were also teenage boys. Did we have no life or spirit to us at all?”
Throughout the novel, Yates is in search of happiness in his teachings and practice as a priest but seems unable to find it, describing his own state as “a life that would prove both rewarding and isolating in equal parts.”
Perhaps the best line in the book comes in the pages before the first chapter—words that do not belong to the author. “Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice,” said E. M. Forster. The same can be said about the book.