Novel documents the fight for Irish independence
In novels such as Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, The Commitments, and The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, Roddy Doyle thrills readers with withering wit, modernist techniques, and the emotional and political realities of working-class Irish. His latest novel, A Star Called Henry, places those themes on a larger historical canvas, examining the fight for Irish independence in the late 1910s through the 1920s. While plenty of books and poems have documented the horror and lament of the 1916 Easter Uprising, and subsequent guerilla skirmishes between British troops and the rebels who eventually became the Irish Republican Army, none does it with the spirit, panache, humor, and heartbreak of Doyle.
Doyle's star is Henry Smart, a precocious youth born to a sad mother and a one-legged tough guy/bouncer/hitman, who characteristically beats his marks with his prosthetic limb. Henry, named for a brother who didn't make it past a year, is repeatedly told that a glimmering star was his late older brother. Doyle effectively uses the star as a symbolic device to represent hope in the face of poverty, violence, and the hardscrabble life of Henry. On his own from the age of three, Henry terrorizes Dublin, hurling profanity and insults while hustling for money. The kid is good charming his way into whatever he wants but lacks guidance and common sense until stumbling into a school at the age of nine to get an education. His foray lasts two days in the class of Miss O'Shea, before he is unceremoniously booted back to the streets by an angry nun. That set-up, the first third of the book, shows us the skills and anger that will eventually make Henry one of the most trusted and celebrated of the freedom fighters under Michael Collins.
Doyle skillfully balances the real history of the Easter Uprising with the braggadocio of the fictional Henry, and wonderfully captures the covert actions that the IRA conducted without being caught by increasingly sophisticated British troops. More than anything, though, Doyle's book is a trenchant critique of the fight for Irish independence, showing us how Henry is not expendable because he is the one who uses his father's old weapon to do the dirty work of Collins. This tension between ideals and reality provides the book's best moments, as the naive Henry eventually comes to startling, heart-wrenching discoveries about the nature of power and what it means to be free.
Original, bold, and alternately hilarious and bittersweet, A Star Called Henry demonstrates once again Doyle's trademark plucky prose and continued mastery of the written word.
Mark Luce serves on the board of directors for the National Book Critics Circle.