Book review: A History of Loneliness

John BoyneI don’t normally start a book review by talking about a completely different book, but I will today so bear with me. John Boyne is probably best known for The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, a book about a young German boy during World War Two who moves to a house in the country where he makes friends with Schmuel, a boy who lives at the other side of a wire fence. Written for ‘younger readers’ it is the story of Bruno’s transition from childhood innocence to horrific understanding, the book was made into a film starring David Thewlis. Despite the label ‘for younger readers’ this, and Boyne’s more recent First World War novel Stay Where You Are & Then Leave, provide food for thought for adult readers too.

So with that in mind I came to A History of Loneliness, Boyne’s latest adult novel, expecting a harrowing storyline which tackles emotional and difficult issues with honesty. I was not disappointed. When I look back at the books I’ve most enjoyed reading, so far this year, Irish writers rank highly – particularly A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry.

The History of Loneliness is a depressing title – it has to be about loneliness, doesn’t it? Yes, but it’s about so much more – the soul of a boy growing up in 1960s Ireland and becoming a priest, it’s about guilt and responsibility and honesty [with oneself, with others]. And, given its setting and time, it is about the Catholic church in Ireland and child abuse. But it is not a depressing novel. It is the story of Odran Yates’s journey from childhood to seminary to adulthood, via Rome where he serves tea to two Popes, back to Ireland where he watches from the sidelines as one then another trusted Irish priest is convicted of child abuse.

John Boyne

[photo: Richard Gilligan]

It is an unexpected page turner. Boyne [above] drops hints at ‘things that happened’, enough to make you want to know what. He maintains the suspense by telling Odran’s story in disparate chunks – the first four chapters move from 2001 to 2006, 1964 to 1980 – answering some questions and asking new ones, and weaving in the story of Odran’s sister Hannah and her family. Some bits made me chuckle, some made me laugh out loud, others brought a lump to my throat. A favourite was the discussion with Katherine Summers, a neighbour of the Yates who cycles by wearing short skirts to the horror of all the Catholic mothers, about the naughty bits in The Godfather. Most of all, this book tells the story of the priesthood from the 1960s when the word of the priest was God, to 2008 when a stranger spits in Odran’s face because he is a priest wearing a black suit and a white plastic collar.

I’ve found a new author to explore, and that is always exciting.

To read my review of John Boyne’s Stay Where You Are & Then Leave, click here.
For more about John Boyne’s writing, click here for his website.
To read my review of A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry, click here.

If you like ‘A History of Loneliness’, try these other Irish authors:-
‘Brooklyn’ by Colm Tóibín
‘Himself’ by Jess Kidd
‘Frog Music’ by Emma Donoghue

‘A History of Loneliness’ by John Boyne [UK: Doubleday] Buy now

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
An honest, harrowing novel: A HISTORY OF LONELINESS by @john_boyne #bookreview via @SandraDanby


  1. Pat Lawrence

    Hi Sandra

    As usual I can’t sign in to reply to your review so thought I’d just write and say you’ve inspired me to get this book!

    My Catholic and Irish background draws me to this novel.

    I’ll write properly soon but just to say we’re in Spain but I haven’t a clue where you guys are now! Hope you’re both well.

    P xx

    Sent from my iPhone


    • I didn’t know you had an Irish/Catholic background! I’m now reading another Irish author, Colm Tóibín, so am on a bit of an Irish run at the moment. SD x