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  • Delven Shaw

A HISTORY OF LONELINESS and map of sorrow

I grew up in Catholic schools, lived just down the block from the Church, was an Alter Boy, and later taught at the Catholic School I graduated from. I had heard many rumors about the monastery across the street. But none of those experiences prepared me for the excellent devastation that is John Boyne’s novel A HISTORY OF LONELINESS.

Father Odrun is a good Irish priest - touched by horrible tragedy in childhood - whose mother declares he has a vocation shortly thereafter, sending him – literally and figuratively – on the road to Rome. Initially, he is a maddingly passive hero – not doing things he really should, taking the path that his instincts and soul tell him should be ignored. It made for some slow going in the first half of the book.

But then, as with all the of the John Boyne books I have read, the plotting becomes so intense as the past and present collide again and again in subsequent chapters. The history of the church in Ireland is well woven into the narrative. And the slow decay of the church in the end overwhelms. But what is excellent in this telling is that the price to be paid is personal as well as potent. There are only a couple of heroic moments in the novel.

Can we ever really know which of our friends is a monster, and which a saint? Are there secrets so obviously we refuse to see them, or truths buried right in front of us. You don’t have to be Catholic to understand and appreciate those dilemmas.

I was shaken by reading the final chapters of the book. Did we really know the teachers our parents put their faith in? Did I know my co-faculty members who drove sporty cars and lived a life of earthly glory as they spoke about heavenly benefits?

Only more great works like A HISTORY OF LONELINESS will enable us to continue to dig and dig and dig till all the harrowing truths about hundreds of years of Catholic tradition are laid bare.

Bibliography of John Boyne


  • 2000: The Thief of Time

  • 2001: The Congress of Rough Riders

  • 2004: Crippen

  • 2006: Next of Kin

  • 2008: Mutiny on the Bounty

  • 2009: The House of Special Purpose

  • 2011: The Absolutist

  • 2013: This House is Haunted

  • 2014: A History of Loneliness

  • 2017: The Heart’s Invisible Furies

  • 2018: A Ladder to the Sky

  • 2020: A Traveler at the Gates of Wisdom

Novels for Younger Readers:

  • 2006: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

  • 2010: Noah Barleywater Runs Away

  • 2012: The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket

  • 2013: Stay Where You Are and Then Leave

  • 2015: The Boy at the Top of the Mountain

  • 2019: My Brother’s Name is Jessica

Short Story Collections:

  • 2015: Beneath the Earth

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