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A Star Called Henry

A book by Roddy Doyle

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Powerful in parts, but revisionism undercuts plot

  • Nov 16, 1999
Rating:
+1
If you read this, you should then compare it to Ernie O'Malley's memoir of fighting in the Irish independence struggle, "On Another Man's Wound." It's one of Doyle's credited sources, and Henry Smart acts out some of that memoir's best moments. The urge to demystify the icons of 1916 has been a strong tendency in recent historical studies of this period, and one that many intellectuals and writers in Ireland have espoused--at least in part. Not that such a suspicious attitude towards hero-worship is not wise. It's just that, taken as an underlying motif in Henry Smart's growing-up, it weakens the novel's energy, and saps its cumulative narrative drive. Doyle describes many incidents vividly (as in Paddy Clarke) in specific scenes. He gets down the inner voice of Henry and renders it at times grippingly. Yet, as another reviewer here has noted, you wonder why, if he's so "smart," why he does not jump ship for America even before the British make him a wanted man. He spends the second half of the novel on the run, believing not in the cause but only in his cunning, yet he stays and endures not only the Rising, but the Tan War (and even the Civil War--disappointingly glossed over rapidly in the melodramatic final pages), when I could not understand why he remains so long in Ireland, since he has no loyalty to the ideals or the rhetoric or the future of the Irish nation anyway. I know in my mind why Doyle sets up a revisionist narrator, but as a reader seeking a compelling story, his Henry fails to prove to me his smarts. Maybe we are meant to regard Henry as an unreliable narrator, but we are not given any other p-o-v to adequately balance against Henry's worldly-wise slum-kid skepticism. The tale--like its hero-- runs out of steam long before it's over. Doyle gives us a young man who can figure out all of his opponent's gambits, but who does not believe enough in himself to win. While attention to this engrossing period is to be commended, and Doyle has read widely while researching the details of early 20c Ireland, his urge to cut down the big figures leaves us with little to care about. We become as fed up as Henry, and I wonder how the next two volumes will sustain him as he wanders through America. (Although I know I'll read vols. 2 &3 anyway!)

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About the reviewer
John L. Murphy ()
Ranked #53
Medievalist turned humanities professor; unrepentant but not unskeptical Fenian; overconfident accumulator of books & music; overcurious seeker of trivia, quadrivia, esoterica.      … more
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Wiki

"Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood." The quote is from Frank McCourt's memoir of growing up impoverished in Limerick, circa World War II. But the sentiment might just as easily have come from the fictional lips of Henry Smart, the hero of Roddy Doyle's remarkable novel of Dublin in the teens,A Star Called Henry. The son of a one-legged hit man, young Henry is the third child born but the first to live through infancy. He is also the second Henry--the first having died, and become a star in the mind of his mother.
She held me but she looked up at her twinkling boy. Poor me beside her, pale and red-eyed, held together by rashes and sores. A stomach crying to be filled, bare feet aching like an old, old man's. Me, a shocking substitute for the little Henry who'd been too good for this world, the Henry God had wanted for himself. Poor me.
Soon, his father has all but abandoned the growing family, and at 9 Henry is on his own, running wild in the streets, thieving to stay alive. Depressing as all this sounds, Doyle has invested his narrator with such an appetite for life, and rendered him so resolutely unsorry for himself, that it seems almost insulting to pity him.

By the time he is 14, Henry has become a soldier in the new Irish Republican Army and in one long and harrowing chapter, we view the events of the Easter Rising of 1916 from his position in the thick of it. It's not a pretty sight by any means, as the populace is divided in its ...

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Details

ISBN-10: 0670887579
ISBN-13: 978-0670887576
Author: Roddy Doyle
Publisher: Viking Adult

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