Oh, to be a priest in Ireland would be grand.

Or it would have been before the Catholic Church was brought to its knees by the sexual abuse scandal that came to the public's eye in Ireland in the 1980s.

John Boyne, author of 12 earlier novels (four for young adults, including the bestselling "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas"), has written his first novel set in his native country with "A History of Loneliness." It is a brilliant work of fiction, filled with gorgeous language.

The gripping story is told by Father Odran Yates, a likable chaplain at a Dublin boys' school.

The Ireland of Father Yates is deeply troubled. "I did not become ashamed of being Irish until I was well into the middle years of my life," Father Yates tells us as the novel opens, and throughout the course of this powerful book, we begin to learn the difficult details of the narrator's past.

Boyne structures his tale by moving back and forth in time, as if Father Yates were sitting down with us, telling us of his past, not consciously holding back — or at least that's what we believe — but revealing recollections as he remembers them.

His life is filled with tragic personal events: the heartbreaking loss of his father and brother at an early age, the death of his brother-in-law, the sad and debilitating illness of his dear sister Hannah, the anguished suspicions and events that encompass his longtime friend and fellow priest Tom Cardle. Yates has always been a dutiful priest, chosen for a brief stint at the Vatican during his final year at seminary (where he, uncharacteristically and briefly, strayed from what was right and proper).

Later he accepted a reluctant departure from his beloved post as librarian at Terenure College, moving to a small parish formerly led by his friend Tom, who has been mysteriously transferred by church officials from parish to parish over a period of many years.

This riveting story, told with vast and beautiful description (on Hannah's early onset dementia, for example: "the slow crawl toward losing her forever began"), is a dagger in the heart of the Catholic Church in Ireland. Following Father Yates, being so close to him as we learn of the dilemmas he faces, in his personal life and in his role as a priest, causes the reader to be empathetic and a little wary of what our narrator might not be telling us. This dichotomy gives John Boyne's latest book a vigorous energy, and adds to our realization that this novel is truly great.

Jim Carmin is a book critic in Portland, Ore.