‘Cyril Avery is not a real Avery or at least that’s what his adoptive parents tell him. And he never will be. But if he isn’t a real Avery, then who is he?
Born out of wedlock to a teenage girl cast out from her rural Irish community and adopted by a well-to-do if eccentric Dublin couple via the intervention of a hunchbacked Redemptorist nun, Cyril is adrift in the world, anchored only tenuously by his heartfelt friendship with the infinitely more glamourous and dangerous Julian Woodbead.
At the mercy of fortune and coincidence, he will spend a lifetime coming to know himself and where he came from – and over his three score years and ten, will struggle to discover an identity, a home, a country and much more.’
Wow. Wow wow wow. I’m not usually the type to gush about a book, even if I adore it, but I have to gush about this one. I just loved it. From the first page to the last, I was hooked.
I don’t know if it’s because I am Irish, so a lot of the places and the happenings in the book are familiar to me, but I felt so drawn into the book, I almost felt like I was in it.
I felt so much shame and pain on behalf of Cyril’s mother, thrown out of her hometown by the parish priest at the age of 16 for the ‘sin’ of finding herself pregnant out of wedlock. I felt such rage at the situation, something that happened up until recently enough in Ireland.
It is a feeling that doesn’t let up much throughout the novel. I was very aware of my own Irishness (is that a word?) while reading, and I felt a dark cloud of shame over my head as I read the book, not on behalf of myself, but on behalf of the country that let their fear of the church allow them to cast other members of society aside so callously.
This book focuses heavily on sexuality, and the battle that Cyril faces as a young gay man growing up in Ireland, trying to forge relationships, and trying to find his way through life, in a way that is as true to himself as possible. He feels that he cannot tell his family, adoptive parents Maude and Charles Avery, or his best friend Julian, for fear of how they would react.
It is only when a disastrous situation forces him out of Ireland, and to Amsterdam, when he realises that there is, in fact, nothing wrong with him or his sexuality, and that he can find love, on his own terms, if he wishes to.
The book follows Cyril from Ireland, to Amsterdam, and then on to New York, where he works as a volunteer in a ward that specialises in AIDS victims, a disease that is really beginning to take hold in New York, and is still seen very much as a ‘gay’ disease. The book does a really great job of highlighting the prejudices and judgement people had, not only in Ireland, but also in America. I felt a real sadness of behalf of the AIDS victims who had nobody else to see them other than the volunteers. Shame, either on behalf of the patients, or their families, meant that so many of them were alone.
When another turn in Cyril’s life makes him decide to return to Ireland, we can see how things have changed, and how things haven’t. Cyril is now openly gay, as are many more people in Dublin. It is not as taboo as it once was. However, he is still referred to constantly as ‘one of those’ types. When he returns at last to the place of his birth, to see where he came from, and from who, we get a real sense of exactly how far he has come.
I have so much praise for this book. The author is in no way afraid of tackling the Irish church, the bigotry and discrimination, both through his own descriptions of them and the way his characters speak of them. He doesn’t paint Ireland in a good light and I think that was so necessary in this book, because the way things were were completely wrong, the way young single mothers were cast aside in shame, the way gay people had to hide themselves from everyone around them, and the absolute power the church and it’s people had over the citizens.
Aside from all that, the characters are so well written. I honestly felt like I knew Cyril personally throughout the book. Never before have I read a book that follows a character so completely from their birth right through to their old age. I can picture each character, from Maude and Charles Avery, to Alice, to Jack Smoot, and to the incredible Mrs Goggin. Each of these characters has their own distinct personality and the author took the time to explore this.
The humour in the book was a great surprise also. There were passages of text that had me laughing out loud. Again, I don’t want to go overboard on the ‘Irishness’ of the book but the humour to me was just typical Irish humour, dry and slightly sarcastic and completely hilarious.
I think I’ve gushed sufficiently about this book, without giving too much away. I think everyone should just go and read it and find out exactly what I’m talking about.
I recommend this to everyone!