Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

A Script for Ken Loach recalling Jack London?

In C.Spiby, Reviews on August 10, 2010 at 2:42 pm

‘A Star Called Henry’

by Roddy Doyle (fiction review by C. Spiby)

A modern take on what initially recalls the socialist novellas of Jack London, Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry tells of the exciting life of one Henry Smart, a streetwise Dublin boy who grows into a teenage rebel fighting in the name of what he thinks will be a new, socialist Irish republic. Not that politics is his thing; he’s come up from the slums and injustice is just a fancy way of saying the daily trials of the poor.

If Ken Loach wanted to make a film of the Irish Civil War much in the same way he approached Spain in Land and Freedom, this novel would be an ideal basis for such a script – gritty, heart-warming, engaging yet politically-sound for both Loach fans and readers of THE CLARION.

A Star Called Henry is an impressive historical novel blending fact and fiction seamlessly. At one point we learn how, during the Easter Uprising in 1916, Henry himself suggests a line that makes up the real ‘Proclamation of the Republic‘. This historical depth adds to the grittiness, excellent characterisation and use of language to make for a, mostly, realistic piece of fiction.

But it is in the very occasional unreality where this work disappoints. There is sex a-plenty and much of it accompanied by singing or fantasies about being interrupted by parents or the British; then there is an all-knowing grandmother who somehow is aware of all the goings-on in the Dublin underworld despite spending every waking hour in-doors reading books; and then there’s even a spell of dowsing. I found all this just gets in the way. Henry could be desirable without having to ‘ride’ almost every decent girl he encounters. The grandmother clearly acts as a literary tool by which clues about Henry’s father can be drip-fed to both Henry and the reader but I think it is so fanciful a conceit that it appears as nothing more than a rather lazy mechanism for pushing along the sub-plot. A different character acting as informant would have been considerably more authentic.

Another disappointment, albeit less so, appears in the second half of the book where, following the excitement of the Post Office siege, the adventures of Henry continue with his bicycle-aided terrorising of the British but I found this section too episodic and quickly rather tiresome. It lacks the vigour of the first half of the novel. Not that the second half is unreadable and dull, it is just not as good as the parts preceding it.

A Star Called Henry, however, is worth reading on its own for the depiction of young Henry and his brother, Victor and their tales on the slum streets of the Dublin – which I found entrancing. In fact one moment, which I will not spoil for you here, is absolutely heart-rendering: Doyle is clearly a gifted writer to procure such emotion in a reader especially with such a sparsely descriptive text.

Also to be commended is the fact that while I hate TV’s current pre-occupation with presenting a dramatic fictional account of facts rather than a straight-forward documentary for fear of losing viewers (such as the recent, diabolical Nuclear Secrets series on BBC2), Doyle here entraps me completely.

I actually listened to this on an unabridged book tape form as loaned from our local library, which is a great way to enjoy more literature (it got me through my journey to work and home again for over 2 weeks) and this text, in particular, benefits from an Irish reader.

Why not reserve a copy from your library for yourself?

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