84 pages 2 hours read

John Boyne

The Heart's Invisible Furies

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2017

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Summary and Study Guide


The Heart’s Invisible Furies is a novel written by John Boyne, author of 14 novels and a short story collection. Originally published in 2017, this historical fiction chronicles of the life of a gay man living in Ireland in the 20th and 21st centuries. It won the Goldsboro Books Glass Bell Award in 2018.

This guide refers to the 2018 Anchor Canada edition of the novel.

Content Warning: This guide discusses the prejudice, intolerance, and hate crimes against gay men that are portrayed in The Heart’s Invisible Furies, and it quotes outdated and offensive terminology that refers to gay men and gay male sexual orientation, which is used in the source text. This guide also mentions story details regarding suicidal ideation, rape, sex trafficking, miscarriage, and incest.   

Plot Summary

Set amongst the social upheaval of the 20th and 21st centuries in Ireland, The Heart’s Invisible Furies chronicles the life of protagonist and first-person narrator Cyril Avery. Catherine, Cyril’s mother, is thrown out of her church, town, and family in 1945 when it is discovered she is pregnant out of wedlock at age 16. An independent and brave woman by nature, Catherine moves to Dublin, living there with new acquaintance Seán and his boyfriend Jack. She works at a tearoom until asked to leave when male patrons complain about the sight of her obvious pregnancy.  

Seán’s father breaks into their flat and murders Seán because of his relationship with Jack. He nearly murders Jack as well but Catherine stops him by hitting him with a hurley stick. Catherine goes into labor as she holds Jack, both of them bleeding and in pain. Catherine’s son’s entrance to the world is chaotic and painful, surrounded by death and hatred.

Catherine relinquishes her son for adoption; a nun takes the baby to Maude and Charles Avery, who name him Cyril. They remind him throughout his life that he is not a real Avery. In the Avery home, Dartmouth Square, Cyril’s basic needs are met, but he lacks the love and attention that he deserves. Maude is a chain-smoker who is chronically attached to her writing and shut away in her office; Charles is a womanizer who earns a fair salary but cheats on his taxes and eventually goes to prison. During his time living with the Averys, Cyril meets Julian, son of Charles’s solicitor Max, who becomes his best friend. Julian and Cyril share their sexual awakening when they show each other their penises at age seven. This moment ignites Cyril’s obsession with Julian as well as alerts him to his own sexuality as a gay person.

Cyril does not see Julian again until they are in college, where they coincidentally become roommates. They become close friends despite their differences and Cyril’s secret obsession with Julian. Julian is a heterosexual man very preoccupied with sex, flitting from partner to partner each week. During one of these encounters, Julian takes Cyril to the tearoom at the Dáil, where Cyril unknowingly meets his mother for the first time. Now a manager at the tearoom, Catherine treats Cyril kindly whenever they meet. When Charles goes to prison for tax evasion, Max buys Dartmouth Square and sends Maude and Cyril out.

When Cyril reaches young adulthood, he becomes desperately lonely and begins having sexual encounters with various strangers in public places. Because being gay is illegal in Ireland during most of Cyril’s life, he is forced to hide his sexuality from everyone. Cyril sleeps with countless men but finds no happiness or fulfillment. He seeks the support of a physician, who attempts to cure him by putting a needle into his testicles and mentioning the names of famous men. Cyril withstands this treatment for half an hour, desperate to rid himself of being gay. When it does not work, he decides to date a girl named Mary-Margaret.

Mary-Margaret is rude and lacks empathy, and after a few months of dating Cyril, she begins to suspect he might be gay. She has a garda (police officer) follow Cyril into a public bathroom where he is caught holding hands with a teenage boy whom he was trying to help. Cyril is nearly arrested, but two men from Northern Ireland blow up a nearby political statue in an act of political rebellion, killing Mary-Margaret and the officer and allowing Cyril to go free.

Soon after, Cyril plans to marry Alice, Julian’s sister. On the day of the wedding, however, he realizes he does not want to go through with a dishonest marriage. He confesses his sexuality to Julian, who tells Cyril he must marry Alice and renounces their friendship as a lie. Cyril marries Alice but runs from the wedding a few hours later and heads for Amsterdam.

In Amsterdam, Cyril works at the Anne Frank House and meets the love of his life, Bastiaan. He is able to live openly as a gay man for the first time and cherishes the moments he spends during this happy period. Cyril also meets Jack Smoot, who owns a pub in Amsterdam and who still considers Catherine his best friend. Soon, Cyril and Bastiaan take in a teenage boy named Ignac, who was a victim of commercial sexual exploitation by his own father and grandmother. When Ignac’s father, Damir, comes for his son at the pub one night, nearly killing him and Bastiaan, Jack stabs Damir. Catherine and Jack dispose of Damir’s body, and Cyril and Bastiaan informally adopt Ignac as their own.

In 1987, Cyril, Bastiaan, and Ignac move to Manhattan so that Bastiaan can work in a communicable disease unit and assist with the AIDS epidemic. Cyril volunteers to visit patients whose family or friends cannot or will not visit. Cyril sees that people around the country have a renewed hatred and disgust for gay men, considering them to be the cause of AIDS. Cyril meets several patients in the hospital, some angry, others delusional; he also discovers Julian there. Julian contracted the disease from a woman but refuses to tell his family the diagnosis for fear that they will think he is gay. Cyril visits Julian every day until the last; as Cyril holds Julian as he dies, they resolve their conflicts. After Julian dies, Cyril is distraught; Bastiaan attempts to comfort him as they walk home. A group of men assault them, killing Bastiaan and permanently injuring Cyril’s leg.

Cyril moves back to Dublin with Ignac after finding out he and Alice had a son, Liam, whom he never met. Alice now lives at Dartmouth Square. Liam is 15 and rejects Cyril at first, but Cyril’s patience and determination to be a better person finally break the barrier, and the two become close. When Charles develops a brain tumor, he moves into Alice’s house, along with Cyril, who wants to be with Charles in his final days. Charles becomes sentimental in his end, telling Cyril how glad he was to have raised him. Cyril never finds romantic love again, but he finds fulfillment in the love of his large and complicated family: ex-wife Alice, biological son Liam, adopted son Ignac, and many grandchildren.

Cyril finally discovers that Catherine Goggin is his mother when he finds her at the hospital after her other son’s death and Cyril’s own grandson’s birth. She mentions the appearance of the nun who took her son away for adoption, and Cyril knows she must be his mother. After a tense reunion, Cyril and his mother develop a close bond and tell each other all about their lives. They return to Goleen together to see the church and family graves. In the novel’s epilogue, Cyril is suffering from a brain tumor and resulting hallucinations of passed loved ones, although he finds these visions comforting. Catherine finally marries at 86, never having lost her strength and stamina, and Cyril walks her down the aisle, happy and filled with the deepest sense of love. The same year, Ireland legalizes gay marriage, giving Cyril hope for Ireland’s future.