Book Review: The Echo Chamber

echo chamber

John Boyne is a prolific writer having had more than twenty books published since his first novel came out in 2000. I have read three of his previous works – The Heart’s Invisible Furies, A Ladder to the Sky and The Boy in Striped Pyjamas – and enjoyed them all. I have also met the author when he appeared at The Marlborough Literature Festival in 2017. He came across as warm and personable as well as being highly entertaining. All of this is to say that, as much as it is possible to like someone you don’t really know, I liked him.

In 2019 Boyne published a novel for younger readers, My Brother’s Name Is Jessica. I was dismayed to see the reaction to this book on social media. As I have not read it I cannot comment on the story, but the abuse Boyne received on Twitter demonstrated how toxic the platform can be when offense is taken. Perhaps it was this episode that inspired The Echo Chamber – a satire on how reputations can be trashed by those determined to ‘cancel’ any who do not agree with their opinion and support their cause.

The tale is told from the points of view of the Cleverley family, who enjoy a life of comfort, wealth and privilege. Sixty year old George works as a popular presenter at the BBC – where he has spent his entire adult life – conducting interviews with the great and the good, some of whom he now talks of as friends. His wife, Beverley, is an author of escapist fiction. Her books may not be regarded as highbrow but have sold in their millions around the world. Nelson, their eldest child, is a teacher with serious social issues. He longs for a girlfriend but struggles to converse in any acceptable way with women. His sister, Elizabeth, aspires to be an influencer, living for the likes and shares of her social media posts as she works to increase her follower count by whatever means. The youngest child, Achilles, is still at school but has found a way to earn money from his good looks, amassing thousands of pounds that he keeps hidden in his wardrobe. The story opens with a brief summary of his birth, an event that coincided with the creation of ‘The Facebook’.

George has always aimed to be open and liberal in his views. However, the contemporary world proves a minefield with its ever-changing vocabulary that must not be misused. When he tweets in support of a young trans woman, but uses the wrong pronoun, a can of worms is opened. With every attempt he makes to explain himself, he makes matters worse.

“‘I admit, I got that very wrong,’ said George, looking genuinely remorseful. ‘And I feel terrible about it. But the terms keep changing and it gets increasingly difficult to keep up. I would never intentionally say something racist, because I’m not racist. Nor, for that matter, would I deliberately insult a transgender person, because I’m not transphobic. But people don’t want to believe that because if they can put these labels on me, then they have a living, breathing human being upon whom they can take out their anger about inequality and injustice.”

One of the angry people seeking out well known names to castigate is Elizabeth. Calling out potentially controversial opinions is a means to garner attention on social media. She uses two Twitter handles, the one that keeps her identity hidden being particularly vitriolic with tweets that sometimes go viral.

Beverley, meanwhile, is working on her latest book while missing her handsome young Ukrainian lover and attempting to look after his tortoise. Absorbed as she is in her own dramas, she assumes her grown children – still living in the parental home and enjoying generous monthly allowances – are getting by fine. With each member of the family making use of the many apps on their smartphones, there is only limited in-person interaction.

The story being told starts well, slows down a little but then picks up and maintains a good pace. Given Boyne’s difficulties with his previous book, I at first questioned the risk he was taking introducing a trans woman as the subject of his first troublesome tweet. It then became clear that what is being explored is the challenge of mentioning any potentially controversial subject publicly. I am told that in real life there actually exist people who spend their time scrolling social media feeds to find someone well known to be outraged at. I had no idea shitstorms were so orchestrated.

Side threads in the unfolding plot bring to the fore how certain subjects can be poked for fun – perhaps in bad taste but generally ignored – while others carry a real risk of attack from the ‘Permanently Outraged of Twitter’ who are portrayed as living for the orgasmic power surge of having their victim ‘cancelled’. By creating protagonists who are in many ways flawed, Boyne demonstrates that it isn’t so much behaviour that is being policed but rather the use of a well known name that can be milked to promote a cause. Truth is unimportant when attention can be caught.

As the story approaches its denouement, the many ill thought out antics of each member of the Cleverley family are brought home to roost. The varied threads start to make sense as the gilded discover they too must face consequences. What had seemed all important is revealed as vacuous, although with money no problem their reckoning could be much worse.

I enjoyed this tale for the witty exchanges and the forthright unmasking of the bullying nature of cancel culture. Boyne may have been driven to leave social media by the furore created around his supposed views, but if staying on message is the only acceptable conversation, critical thinking and listening will become lost skills, to the detriment of all.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.

Book Review: A Ladder to the Sky

A Ladder to the Sky, by John Boyne, tells the story of Maurice Swift, a handsome Yorkshireman and son of a farmer who is determined to leave his upbringing behind and become a renowned author. When the tale opens he is working as a waiter in West Berlin. Here he meets Erich Ackermann, an aging Cambridge professor whose latest novel has just won The Prize. To satisfy his publishers Erich has taken a year’s leave of absence to perform on the expected circuit of literary events across Europe and America, promoting the book that has unexpectedly brought him fame. He is drawn to Maurice as a moth to a flame, the young man’s good looks and knowledgeable admiration of Erich’s work unlocking desires that have lain dormant for decades.

Erich agrees to read some of Maurice’s writing and is disappointed to find it skillfully constructed but mundane. Unwilling to lose touch he offers to employ Maurice as his assistant on tour. With this foothold the aspiring writer enters the rarefied world of the literati with its jealousies, conceits and ruthless ambition. Always on the lookout for a story idea, Maurice encourages Erich to talk to him about his experiences growing up in Germany under Hitler. Erich harbours a terrible secret that he decides to share.

The plot jumps forward in time to a beautiful and secluded villa on the Amalfi Coast where Gore lives with Howard. Key figures from the world of literature, the arts and politics along with those who believe they will benefit from mixing with these supposed titans have all passed through. Now Maurice has found a way to receive an invitation to stay. Like other aging authors, Gore is tempted by the young man’s mix of admiration and contempt, his confidence and allure. There is much verbal sparring, name dropping and one-upmanship highlighting the tensions, pretensions and sensitivities of authors who, even when revered, are forever alert to the danger of eclipse by newer rivals’ work. Maurice may have by now written a book that garnered wide attention but the cost was high and lacking the esteem he seeks.

A decade later Maurice is married to Edith, an up and coming writer, but has not yet found the continued success he believes is his due. The couple have recently moved to Norwich where Edith is to teach creative writing at UEA while adding the finishing touches to her second novel. Maurice has no firm plans but hopes to pick up ideas, perhaps from her students. What he discovers will catapult him into the world to which he aspires. He will not allow anyone to stand in his way.

The story continues in New York where Maurice founds and runs an exclusive literary magazine, seeking out new writers and granting him access to their ideas. By the end of the novel he is living in London and being courted by a young writer himself, a situation he intends to work to his advantage.

The decades over which the story is set allows for tight plot progression, the pace of which effortlessly maintains reader engagement. Despite Maurice’s behaviour, the terrible actions he justifies to himself as necessary, there is much humour. Authors are often asked where they get there ideas. This tale provides an interesting study into who owns intangible and regularly reinterpreted inspirations. The denouement is ace.

I would offer a comparison to an amalgamation of Patricia Highsmith and Sebastian Faulks but wonder if this would somehow irritate the author who may prefer simply to be recognised as the talented writer he undoubtedly is. Having read this book readers will likely view the authors they queue to meet at festivals and events in a different light. Expertly constructed it provides engrossing literary entertainment, and a deliciously subversive dig at the author’s world.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.

Gig Review: John Boyne at the Marlborough Literature Festival

Last weekend I attended the Marlborough Literature Festival – you may read about my first day experiences here. Day Two was more straightforward as traffic had returned to manageable levels in the town. I was also familiar with the venues, knowledge that helps anyone prone to unnecessary anxiety.

Unless an author is of particular personal interest – Margaret Atwood and Hilary Mantel come to mind – I tend to eschew larger events, prefering the intimacy of a bookshop venue. However, having so much enjoyed his latest work – The Heart’s Invisible Furies (you may click on the title to read my review) – I couldn’t miss the opportunity to listen to John Boyne speak. Plus he is Irish. I do like to support writers from my home country, even those as successful as him.

Held upstairs in the town hall, this event was chaired by Tony Mulliken who has worked with the National Book Awards and The London Book Fair. He appeared to be enjoying the ensuing discussion as much as the audience.

Following introductions, John was asked about the impact of the success of his fifth novel, The Boy In Striped Pyjamas, and what he thought of the popular film adaptation. John admitted that it changed his life, enabling him to do what he had always dreamed of and become a full time writer. He told us that he liked the movie, that he had worked on it himself. He also pointed out that a film doesn’t change a book, but it does bring more readers to the author’s works.

Moving on to The Heart’s Invisible Furies, John explained that this was a story about love, invisibility and anger at how his protagonist, Cyril Avery, is treated. Set over seventy years – ten chapters in seven year leaps – it opens when Cyril is still in the womb. John did not wish to portray Cyril’s pregnant and unmarried mother, Catherine, as a victim but rather as a strong, independent woman. He prefers to write his female characters in this way.

John then read from the book. This was one of several readings, each of which had the audience in stitches. The story weaves humour and pathos with a warm, impressive adroitness. Its author proved himself a fine, live entertainer.

John explained that although he plots his novels in advance he then allows them to develop. His plan for this book was to tell the story of a seventy year old man looking back on his life. After he had written Catherine’s denouncement by the church, he found the tone of his writing changed. A particular type of humour evolved with Cyril’s adoptive parents. John enjoyed writing in this way, deciding that readers did not need six hundred pages of misery. He hadn’t really done humour before but the change of direction opened a floodgate in his head and he enjoyed the process.

Irish people will know of the teatowels and bar towels and other touristy paraphenalia featuring the eight great Irish writers, all men. He decided that Cyril’s adoptive mother would be an author horrified by the thought of popular success, whose latest novel would suddenly threaten to put her face on such ephemera. Her husband is a dodgy banker whose foolish actions upset the family equilibrium. Both these characters provide much humour despite their sometimes casually cruel behaviour.

The book is historically accurate featuring an emerging homosexual growing up in a country where being gay is still illegal. John was asked what personal echoes exist in the book. He pointed out that all writers feature shadows of themselves. He wanted to write about how terrifying and misunderstood the AIDs crisis was having experienced the fear of it as a teenager in the 1980s. He also talked of the fear of the twenty foot walk, from bedroom to sitting room to come out to parents, and the huge repercussions on all their lives from there. John mentioned the pressure put on gay men to ‘try’ sex with a woman, the suggestion that maybe they might enjoy being married. Few considered how cruel this would be to the woman.

To develop Cyril’s character, to allow him to grow up, Cyril had to be taken out of the claustrophobic atmosphere of Ireland. When he eventually returns, having finally experienced love, the country has changed. The decriminilisation of homosexuality along with the revelations of the extent of abuses within the church allowed more liberal attitudes to develop. There was mirth from the audience when John mentioned the ongoing support of his country’s European friends.

In discussing endings, John does not feel a need for happiness so much as authenticity. He does though enjoy placing well known real public figures in his books and representing them in a certain way.

John was asked about his influences and mentioned John Irving, for his sexual misfits, and Dickens, for his orphans. John enjoys writing children without adults to solve their problems.

Another question asked was why Julian, Cyril’s best friend on whom he had a crush, could not see that Cyril was in love with him. This was because everyone loved Julian, he was used to being adored. Also, it was the 1950s when such behaviour would not be expected. Cyril did not feel he could be honest with Julian which demonstrated a lack of trust in their friendship.

John was asked about how he treats priests in the book. He wanted to start with the hypocrisy. He didn’t want it to be another church book but it is set in decades when the church was still a major social force. John grew up living next door to priests and nuns. He was an alter boy. These were not good memories.

Asked about the notable Irish voice throughout the story John was asked about translations and how this voice could be retained. He talked of the skill of the translator in capturing nuances. He also pointed out that he could not read the translations so would never know.

Did John set out to write a social history of Ireland or to write about Cyril? Both. He wanted to highlight the massive changes in attitudes in Ireland through the eyes of a particular person.

Has John been approached for film rights for this book? Yes, in a way. They have been sold to Ridley Scott as a ten part series. Of course this is no guarantee that the project will be taken further.

I found this a fascinating talk as well as being a highly entertaining event. If you haven’t already read The Heart’s Invisible Furies, I wholeheartedly recommend it.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies is published by Doubleday.

I will be writing about the final event I attended at the Marlborough Literature Festival in the next few days.

Book Review: The Heart’s Invisible Furies

invisiblefuries

The Heart’s Invisible Furies, by John Boyne, tells the life story of Cyril Avery, a man born into an Ireland that I recognised all too well. I don’t think I have ever laughed so much at what is, at times, a heart-breaking story. In places the style of writing brought to mind the work of John Irving, to whom the book is dedicated, but this is a much more nuanced, hard hitting yet always compelling read.

Cyril Avery is born in 1945 to Catherine, the sixteen year old, unwed daughter of a Cork farmer. As soon as her condition becomes known she is condemned as a whore by the village priest in front of his entire congregation. He assaults and then banishes the teenager, with the full cooperation of her large and present family.

Catherine makes her way to Dublin where she sets about creating a new life for herself. She understands that, alone and financially insecure as she is, this will not be possible with a child. The convents, well used to dealing with ‘fallen women’, take her son when he is three days old and offer him to a wealthy, married couple who have asked for a baby to adopt. Cyril is accepted, although regularly reminded throughout his life that he is not ‘a real Avery’.

Charles and Maud Avery raise the boy in comfort but not perhaps as conventional parents would. Although never in material want, he feels bereft of affection. When Cyril is seven years old he meets Julian, the handsome and charismatic son of Charles’ solicitor. Julian is unlike anyone Cyril has previously known and he is immediately smitten. The boys become room mates at boarding school and have various, sometimes risqué, adventures. Cyril though has a secret that he cannot bring himself to tell even his best friend.

Ireland in thrall to the Catholic Church. Its sanctimonious attitudes, rampant hypocrisy and mysogeny are brilliantly evoked. Its preoccupation with other people’s sex lives and the indoctrination of guilt lead to horrifying cruelties and acceptance of widespread and very public vilification when those who do not conform to narrow behaviours are found out.

When Cyril’s secret is revealed he travels abroad but can never quite escape the bullies intent on forcing their flawed beliefs on all. Prejudice and related intolerance are damagingly widespread.

At moments in his long life Cyril does find happiness. He also makes mistakes and at times causes suffering for others. He sees the way the world is changing and regrets that he was born too soon to benefit.

The author is an impressive story teller and this ambitious work is masterfully crafted. With just a few lines he can touch the heart of an issue yet is never didactic. Events recounted are sometimes horrifying, but by not dwelling on the misery what comes across is the strength of those who stand up for what is right, and the benefits to society of increased empathy.

I loved this book. It is a powerful, poignant and beautiful tale. It will, I hope, be widely read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.