Guilty Solitude | A History of Loneliness Book Review
Updated: May 26
Life is an island in an ocean of loneliness, an island whose rocks are hopes, whose trees are dreams, whose flowers are solitude, and whose brooks are thirst.
Your life is an island separate from all the other islands and regions. No matter how many are the ships that leave your shores for other climes, no matter how many are the fleets that touch your coast, you remain a solitary island, suffering pangs of loneliness and yearning for happiness. You are unknown to others and far removed from their sympathy and understanding.
[Kahlil Gibran, The Voice of the Master]
I picked this book up randomly one day in a pop-up bookstore on one of my regular detours as I attempt, unsuccessfully, to make corporate life bearable. I had come across neither the title nor the author, John Boyne, prior to this, so was not expecting much. If I’m honest, it was the title and solemnity of the cover that caught my eye (yes, I judge books by their cover, and yes, I only look at them with one eye). I initially assumed it was an actual historical account of loneliness.
Well, sort of.
Although a work of fiction, A History of Loneliness took me back to my studies in History, in particular the Holocaust, and more specifically, the Eichmann trial with its many complexities: definitions of culpability, breadth of legal responsibility, basic questions of good and evil and ultimately, the frailties of the human spirit. Timeless questions that are succinctly reproduced as Boyne cleverly unpacks the crimes of the Irish Catholic Church.
Rather than delve into the scandals of the church or of particular priests, as our Australian media is currently indulging in, Boyne takes an alternative route. Slowly, meticulously, and with a deliberate, protracted pace that forces one to reckon with oneself, Boyne leads the reader down a path of reflection, judgement and (self-)doubt.
Boyne plays perceptively with a dual storyline: a docile priest navigating changing perceptions of his vocation, alongside a global sex scandal ravaging the Catholic Church. Forced to reckon with the reality of solitary priesthood and sympathise with the unpleasant life of Father Yates, on the one hand, and utterly detest the Church and his involvement within it, on the other, is positioned a reader torn.
Can one really sympathise with a person arguably complicit in child sexual abuse?
By focusing on a lacklustre (in fact, utterly boring) character, Father Odran Yates, the story draws the reader to the arguably greater criminality of the Church’s scandals: the banality of it all. The looking the other way, turning a blind eye, turning the other cheek, so to speak, of church life that enabled and facilitated if not the deliberate action, at least the sheer scale of abuse. Father Yates is no criminal. With a fraught childhood of his own, and a meekness verging on naivety, Father Yates is an unspectacular protagonist. It is precisely this ordinariness that makes A History of Loneliness a timely and chilling read.
What Boyne achieves with his pace and approach is a subtle critique of culpability - who is ultimately responsible here?, and of intention - are we dealing with evil people?
In his childlike innocence, is Father Yates ultimately culpable in the sexual abuse of children?
I am tempted to describe A History of Loneliness as a gripping novel, perhaps because, as a common praise, I feel it’s worthy of the accolade. But in honesty, it’s really not gripping at all. I didn’t find myself desperate to return to it as I do with some other novels. Yet this is not a critique by any means. A History of Loneliness is not difficult to put down so much as it is a burden to pick up. It’s not thrilling or exhilarating. You don’t feel the need to tell anyone and everyone you meet about it (in part because speaking to humans is overrated).
Rather, the text gnaws away at you like a dull toothache. And yet, like a toothache that enters the hidden cavities your life unannounced and uninvited, you ultimately know that resistance is futile; you must attend to it.
A History of Loneliness is a nagging read, and worth submitting to.