“A Star Called Henry” by Roddy Doyle

AStarCalledHenryWikipedia explains that this 1999 novel represents the first volume of a trilogy, The Last Roundup. The later parts are Oh, Play That Thing (2004) and The Dead Republic (2010).

The book follows the early life of Henry Smart. The first chapters concern his childhood in the slums of early 20th century Dublin. Despite poverty and hard times, this section arguably has a lyrical black humour, particularly within the character of Henry’s father, a one-legged bouncer for who carries out assassinations by bludgeoning his victims with a wooden leg.

As the story progresses, Henry becomes involved in the 1916 Easter Rising and the subsequent War of Independence. The fictional Henry Smart becomes personally acquainted with several historical characters from the conflict, as he becomes a gunman in the guerilla war against the British. Henry plays a key role in recruiting and training others to the cause as he travels around the area over long night-time bicycle rides.  Towards the end of the novel, Henry’s ideals about a free Ireland are beginning to conflict with his experiences of violence and the apparent motivations of others around him.

We read this in March 2016.  Eight people attended the meeting and several more of our readers sent comments by email.  On the whole the book was well regarded but perhaps admired rather than loved. Most thought the childhood part was well done and the story of the Easter Rising and the ending was felt to be optimistic. A few of us felt that the centre part dragged somewhat. The central character of Henry was thought to be well portrayed though there was disagreement about how unlikable he was. Several found parts of the story quite confusing and weren’t always sure just what had happened. One person found it unmemorable: they had read it six weeks previously and could remember nothing of it, not even much when reminded during the meeting! There didn’t seem very much enthusiasm for reading the next two books in the trilogy though a couple of us said that we would.

Some individual comments…

Eileen said:

I expected to be more gripped than I was. I appreciate it was well written and its grittiness gave a true depiction of the Irish situation – I realise that I know very little about it (in spite of going to a Catholic school) and should know more. The childhood part was very well written, in particular the death of Victor.

Jade:

I read this originally when I was at university and didn’t much like it. I did get it off the shelf last week to see if my opinion had changed, but after about 100 pages I just lost interest and put it down again.

Bill:

Not having read any Roddy Doyle, I enjoyed this in spite of some grim episodes. I liked the pace with which it moved, often with people in pursuit. A good choice too, considering the imminent anniversary of 100 years since the Easter Rising.
In spite of his psychopathic tendencies and confused loyalties, Henry Smart remained a sympathetic figure, to some extent, throughout the book. Perhaps his awful beginnings, and the intensely harrowing death of his little brother Vincent, endeared one to him. Perhaps one can draw parallels with his beginnings, and the roots of fundamentalist radicalisation that still plagues our times.
The Irish have had harsh treatment, over centuries, from the English: Cromwell’s purges, absentee landlords enforcing rents during the famine, Black & Tans seeking vengeance. This novel attempts to explain a lot about Irish resentment, and the way that revolution is sometimes the only way to change. At the same time it paints a harsh, unflinching and realistic picture of the violence, fear, treachery and injustice that’s perpetrated during any social upheavel.
I thought it was a fine book: well written, well researched, honest and even (darkly) humorous in parts.
But it’s not a book for the faint-hearted.
Our individual scores ranged from 6 to 9 giving an average score of 7.2 from 11 readers.
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