John Boyne ("The Boy in the Striped Pajamas") dedicated his new book to John Irving, but it might be Charles Dickens to whom he owes the greater literary debt.

"The Heart's Invisible Furies" is a big, sweeping novel, the epic story of one man's life. It takes on social issues and pivotal moments in Irish history as it follows the life of one Cyril Avery, a Pip-like orphan raised by indifferent adoptive parents and forced to make his own way in a very difficult world.

Cyril, who narrates the book, is wry, observant and funny, and it is his voice that gets us through what are sometimes horrific events. The book's main theme is the Catholic church — its hypocrisy and its power over people's lives in post-World War II Ireland. That Boyne tackles such a serious issue with great storytelling and humor is to his immense credit; much of the book is very, very funny. And much of it is tragic.

The story begins in 1945 as Cyril's mother — an unmarried, pregnant teenager in the west of Ireland — is being publicly denounced by the local priest. She is cast out of the church and the village and heads alone to Dublin, where the first half of the book is set. Cyril is born a few months later during a scene of great violence: His mother goes into labor as she tries to stop two gay friends from being beaten to death.

Being gay in 1945 Ireland was perhaps the one thing considered worse than being an unwed mother; not only was homosexuality illegal, but gay men were routinely beaten and even murdered for their sexual orientation, with no repercussions.

The book visits Cyril every seven years throughout his life, taking him through his school days and his unrequited love for his straight friend, Julian; his furtive sexual encounters; his hilarious and tragic wedding; his life abroad. After Cyril emigrates, about midway through the novel, the tone shifts. The book becomes more serious, a bit didactic, and some conversations and situations seem less integral to the story and exist more as examples of social wrongs and individual cluelessness.

The plot relies on frequent coincidences, although Boyne foreshadows them so skillfully that they are mostly forgivable — chance encounters, Dickensian connections, even Cyril's presence when Nelson's Pillar is blown up by the IRA. "Dublin's a small town," one character shrugs late in the book, as if to explain.

Despite these missteps, the book never really flags, and Cyril's intelligent, witty voice takes us all the way through to the end of his life. "The Heart's Invisible Furies" is a brilliant, moving history of an Irishman, and of modern Ireland itself.

Laurie Hertzel is senior editor for books at the Star Tribune. Twitter: @StribBooks

The Heart's Invisible Furies
By: John Boyne.
Publisher: Hogarth, 580 pages, $28.