A quarter of the way through John Boyne’s novel A History of Loneliness, we find the book’s narrator and main character looking for a seat on the train. Fr. Odran Yates is a young Irish priest on his way to visit a friend. The packed train confronts him with the dismaying possibility of having to stand for the next two and a half hours, but he quickly sees the advantage and disadvantage of being a priest in Ireland in 1980. The advantage is the deference his collar summons: several passengers, including a pregnant woman, offer him their seats, and one man insists on buying him lunch. The disadvantage is unwelcome attention: he’s not hungry, and watching eyes keep him from speaking freely with the woman across from him.
How times change! Later in the novel, we find the same Fr. Yates being interrogated in a police station in 2011—his reward for having tried to help a lost child in a department store. Thirty years on, in the era of the sexual-abuse crisis, his collar calls up doubt and hostility as quickly as reverence. In this changing environment, Fr. Yates struggles to make sense of his own calling.
Boyne’s attention to the circumstances of priestly life in real-world Catholic Ireland was what drew me to this latest book by the author of the best-selling novel The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. I’ve often wondered how it is to be a good priest in the age of suspicion. How does one bear it and keep courage? A History of Loneliness, drawing in part on Boyne’s consultation with priests in Dublin, gives us an inside view of the struggle. In the acknowledgments, Boyne addresses himself to the direct victims of clergy sexual abuse, but also to those “dedicated and honest priests who have seen their lives and vocations tarnished by the actions of their colleagues.”
That said, the main question in Loneliness is just how “dedicated and honest” Fr. Yates has been. Decades of scandal have shown that the abuse crisis cannot be reduced to the deeds of individual offenders acting in isolation. Others have aided and abetted the abusers, from fellow priests and parishioners who looked the other way, to bishops who reassigned predators without holding them accountable. In this extended examination of conscience, Fr. Yates looks back on his own life and wonders if he is as innocent as he has presumed himself to be.
A point in question is his friendship with Fr. Tom Cardle, his “best friend” since seminary days. Yates is privy to signals that something is not right with Cardle. While he himself stays put, teaching and managing the library at a boys’ school, Cardle is repeatedly moved after just a short stay in each new parish. In this Yates perceives not a red flag, but an injustice against Cardle. Meanwhile, he chooses to ignore hints from the archbishop and Cardle’s housekeeper that Cardle is up to no good.
In one of Loneliness’s creepiest moments, Yates receives an enthusiastic letter from the newly ordained Cardle. The once-bitter seminarian reports finding parish life a welcome change from the theologate. There are “advantages to his position he hadn’t even imagined before,” he says, and he mentions he’s “developed some new hobbies,” without explaining what they are. Above all, Cardle is taken with the respect accorded to priests. “It’s like we’re gods now!”
At times Fr. Yates’s lack of suspicion strains credibility. He is by nature retiring—he relishes his work as a librarian, restoring order to the stacks—but it is hard to believe Yates would not have heard directly from colleagues of Cardle’s misbehavior, especially given how gossip pervades clerical culture (it’s a “serious illness” in Vatican circles, according to Pope Francis). By book’s end, however, Yates is unsparing in his assessment of his own failures, admitting that he did know, or should have known, things he didn’t admit to himself at the time.
ON THE WHOLE, A History of Loneliness is a realistic depiction of key dynamics of the abuse crisis. Boyne demonstrates how the hierarchy’s determination to maintain the power and image of the church has colluded with the laity’s strong desire for religious certainty. While highly critical of the church, Boyne strives to be accurate and fair, and he has an eye for corruption outside the church—particularly in Irish and American politics—as well as within.
A History of Loneliness is a sad tale of abuse, sexual frustration, and failed friendship. Its deepest sadness, however, has to do with the absence of God, a theme that finds its most direct expression in Fr. Yates’s conversation with the woman on the train. At a certain point, this Jewish woman who lost her father to a concentration camp challenges the priest who calls Jerusalem beautiful even though he’s never been there. God “doesn’t exist,” she says. “How could he?” Neither Yates nor Boyne has an answer for her. Indeed, the one true disappointment in Loneliness is its failure to depict the priest’s spirituality. While the contours of Yates’s relationships with others are sharply drawn, his relationship with God remains vague. It’s all telling—“Prayer became more important to me…. I spent more time with my Bible”—and no showing. How odd to be inside the head of a suffering priest and not hear him plead with God directly.
That may not diminish the book’s realism. Recent events show it’s possible to represent God publicly without having an actual relationship with him privately. Still, I would have been interested in seeing what God would do if he had been given a chance to act in this story.