*This review contains light SPOILERS*
Title: A Star Called Henry
Author: Roddy Doyle
Born in the Dublin slums of 1901, his father a one-legged whorehouse bouncer and settler of scores, Henry Smart has to grow up fast. By the time he can walk he’s out robbing and begging, often cold and always hungry, but a prince of the streets. By Easter Monday, 1916, he’s fourteen years old and already six-foot-two, a soldier in the Irish Citizen Army. A year later he’s ready to die for Ireland again, a rebel, a Fenian and a killer. With his father’s wooden leg as his weapon, Henry becomes a Republican legend – one of Michael Collins’ boys, a cop killer, an assassin on a stolen bike. (from Goodreads)
Thoughts: A Star Called Henry tells the story of Henry Smart, from his childhood up to the end of his teenage years. Born in the Dublin slums, he grows up on the street with his little brother Victor, his mother an alcoholic and his father, a one-legged killer, abandoning his family while Henry is still young. As a young teenager, Henry joins the Irish Citizen Army and is part of the crew that takes over the General Post Office during the Easter Rising. Afterwards, he becomes thoroughly involved with the Irish independence movement, training men, killing rozzers, and living on the run, til certain events make him question his life, his choices, and what exactly he is fighting for.
Hmm… What to say about A Star Called Henry? This is a book that technically does everything right: Doyle is clearly a talented writer, the subject matter is interesting, the plot is well-structured, and yet… and yet the book fell flat. Have you ever read a book, finished it, and thought ‘The author wrote this book simply to write a book?’ That’s the best way I can describe this book: it was written simply to be written. There was no heart, no passion, nothing that touched me or even elicited a strong emotional response from me.
Actually that’s a lie: I did feel rather strongly about one event while reading. There are two graphic sex scenes depicted between Henry, when he is 14, and a 28 year old women who in the past had been his teacher. Sex in books does not bother me (although I have yet to find a book where it is well done and it is not either laugh-out-loud cheesy, simply ridiculous, or, worse, simply boring). What bothers me is the extremely young age of Henry at the time and the age of Misses O’Shea, his former teacher. Although the scenes were meant to be taken as positive experiences, to me 14 is simply too young an age to consent, and I confess I was disturbed that these events were meant to be accepted as such. The fact that four years down the line the pair get married did not sit well with me. Their relationship is meant to be seen as a loving equal partnership, but these later events were marred for me by the fact that their relationship began, in my opinion, with what constitutes sexual abuse. Maybe in some way my reaction is what the author wanted- children are forced to grow up to quickly in wartime etc., but to my knowledge this isn’t hinted at in the book and as a result this relationship unnerved me throughout my reading.
This brings me to the character of Henry Smart himself, someone who I had multiple problems with. My main issue was that the way he was written was just plain unbelievable- he had no faults whatsoever. He was the epitome of a Gary-Stew like character. Everything he did was perfect and courageous. Ladies throw themselves at him, he’s the handsomest man they’ve ever seen, and at 15 years old he has no problem finding three or four women each night willing to share this bed, his eyes are like no other, at 14 he becomes a hero of the war, yadda yadda yadda, blah blah blah… give me a break. If you want to make a reader bored, disinterested, and utterly lacking emotional investment in your work, than make your main character perfection personified and more confident than the man on the moon.
I will say that I did enjoy the first 80 or so pages when Henry was little, but beyond that I can’t really think of anything positive to say about this novel, which to me is really depressing as this book has been sitting on my shelf for years and anything about the Easter Rising will at least get the cursory once-over from me as I love that period in Irish history. I admit that the whole time I read this book I couldn’t help thinking about the last book I read dealing with the Irish Revolution- Troubles by J. G. Farrell (which, thank God, is also part of a series!), a book which, in my opinion, A Star Called Henry can’t hold a candle to. I kind of feel like I’m bashing this book but I really was disappointed with it. Doyle is obviously a talented writer who understands his craft but you can’t rely on narrative structure and well-placed plot points to create a novel that’s engrossing and resonates with the reader. That takes heart, and I feel like Doyle’s heart wasn’t in it, which is a shame as this book could have been so much more.
I read this book as part of the 2013 Ireland Challenge so yay! at least I made some progress on that front!