Should Your Book Club Read A History of Loneliness by John Boyne?

I read this book in two days, and would have finished in one if other duties hadn’t insisted upon my attention!  Wow, you think a subject like the sex scandals of the Catholic Church have been done and dusted, and then you pick up a book like this and realize…where is the outrage???  Yes, your book club should read and discuss this!  Also, it’s a very gripping and superbly crafted story.

So, what can your book club talk about?

Warp-speed plot summary: It’s Ireland, and we’re taken by the narrator from his childhood through his time as a priest in both Ireland and Rome as he reflects upon the Church’s sex scandals, pondering all the while the culpability of those involved.

Father Odran Yates is our narrator, and you will no doubt spend a lot of time figuring him out.  Is he reliable?  Is he telling the reader the truth?  Is he telling himself the truth?  Is he the priest that his best friend Tom accuses him of being?  Or is he someone else?  Why does Odran join the priesthood, and why does he stay there?  What is he getting out of it?  Why is he telling us his story?

This may lead you to talk about the role of priests and other religious leaders.  What is their appropriate role?  What is their value?  Are they anachronisms?  What makes a good priest?

You’ll want to talk about the structure of the book.  Does the form carry any meaning to the reader?  Is the structure an integral part of what the book is saying?  Would this be a completely different book if it were told as a linear narrative?  How does the story’s structure express the theme of remembering?  Yes, you’ll definitely want to consider the remembering that Odran is doing.  What purpose does it hold?  Is it healing?  Or does it re-tramautize?

Should there be a collective remembering?  Or have we all heard enough about such scandals?  Is this an important book to read?

Why do you think this book is titled the way it is?  Is there more than one explanation?  What about the epigraph?  How does this affect your understanding of the book?  How does it inform Odran’s telling of the story?

One of the themes you’ll want to ‘dig deep’ into is that of how our childhoods shape who we are.  And how far can we take this as an excuse for our adult behavior?  How long can we blame our parents for how they raised us?

What do you think of Odran’s parents?  Are they simply doing what any Irish Catholic parents of the 1960’s and ’70’s would do?  Are they good parents?  Or are they blind, unthinking sheep?  And what about all the parents of the boys who were abused?  Is it fair to say that no one could have realized what was going on except in hindsight?

What do you think of Odran’s sister?  Why does he spend so much time telling us about her?

DENIAL.  You’ll certainly want to discuss this. Who was in denial?  Who truly didn’t know?  Is it even possible that one couldn’t know?  Or suspect?  Or is that how we feel now because of everything we do know, now that the scandal has come to light?  You should also talk about the culpability of those who chose or choose to remain in denial.

You’ll certainly want to talk about secrecy and its ability to protect those in power.   While you’re reading the book, count how many times the words “embarrass” and “shame” show up.  Talk about the psychology of using those very words by those who should have been experiencing embarrassment and shame–a colossal understatement, I realize–against their victims.

Power.  Oh, yes, you will want to discuss this.  Who has it.  How they get it.  And how they keep it.  What happens to those who have it.  What happens to those who don’t.

You’ll want to talk about Ireland and its relationship with the Catholic Church.  Oh, and you’ll want to talk about the Catholic Church.  This could, obviously, take up the entire meeting.  Talk about institutions in general.  Who is in control?  The individuals within them or the system itself?

Talk about Odran’s experience in Rome.  Why do you think he tells us about his time there?  What do you make of what Odran tells us about his sexuality?

Is the book excusing anyone?  Is it explaining anything?  Does it add to your understanding of the sex scandals?  Does it make you more empathetic/sympathetic toward anyone?  Does it make you angry and want to DO something?  Is it indicting anyone?  Is it indicting YOU?

2 thoughts on “Should Your Book Club Read A History of Loneliness by John Boyne?

  1. I truly enjoyed this very sad, brilliantly recounted story of the life of a man looking for simplicity in the complexity of his “chosen” profession. The only small negative for me was the implication that someone else's behaviour was Odran's fault.

  2. Thank you for your comment! I think it was the idea that one knows of bad behavior but does nothing to stop it. I think the book is exploring that question–where does culpability lie? Where does it stop? It doesn't seem to be enough to say, “I didn't do anything.”

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