A Star Called Henry, by Roddy Doyle

by Robert A. Parker

This as a magnificent novel of Ireland’s struggle to free itself from England in the early 20th century. This 1999 work is the first in a trilogy presumably about Henry Smart, the hero here. The novels that follow are not, according to later reviews, as rich and powerful as this one, but no matter. This is not only a great work but also a complete work that stands fully on its own.

We first meet Henry as a newborn baby and then watch as he is alienated from his disorganized, hard-scrabble family, until, in rebellion at about five, he begins trailing after his ne’er-do-well father, also called Henry. From his father, he learns how to live off the streets as a poor urchin, and how to escape down its cobbled lanes and even underground through its sewers. He also watches how his father uses his artificial leg to defend himself and to attack others. It is a wonderful Part One, as the reader sympathizes with and identifies with a young Henry, especially after his father abandons him and he is left, at age eight, to guide his ill-fated brother Victor in a mutual struggle to survive in their world of poverty that Henry himself has learned to resent.

In Part Two, Henry is a teenager, and we encounter him trapped in and experiencing the siege of the Dublin Post Office, an historical set-piece that is brilliantly described. He also finds the love of his life, Miss O’Shea, who is a decade older but is taken with this now six-foot, handsome youth, as she remembers his effort to become a student of hers years ago. Eventually, Henry escapes the Post Office, and in Part Three he reaches seventeen and joins Ireland’s violent struggle for freedom, working under Michael Collins and using as a weapon the artificial leg he has inherited from his now dead father. But as he progresses in the cause, the reader is challenged to continue identifying with this youth.

For while he is recruiting and training followers for Collins, he also becomes an assassin The violence in him erupts, and he begins killing the enemies of the Irish movement in cold blood, often after simply being given their name on a scrap of paper. He does not ask why. Some are occupying soldiers, and the reason is obvious. While others are Irish and are sometimes killed either for the convenience of the cause or for the personal motive of an individual rebel. But Henry follows orders. He believes in his Irish mission and in the necessity of violence. Ironically, however, when the movement achieves success, his own name will end up on a scrap of paper, because the cause regards him as a hard-boiled non-conformist, one whose independence may be inconvenient for the plans of the new Irish leaders.

The English are continually after Henry, of course, and he must constantly avoid them, which adds to the suspense of the novel. Indeed, what reader does not wish a novel’s main character to use his freedom to drive the novel and, of course, determine its direction? As a counterpoint, however, to the novel’s thriller aspect, our hero seeks out and rediscovers Miss O’Shea, which brings out the idealism and tenderness that remain within him, and which re-enforces our ability to identify with him despite his violent role in the rebellion.

Amid all the cruelty, Doyle also brings to his novel a poetic touch. Some of his descriptions reveal this, but the most prominent one appears on the opening page, where Henry’s poor, destitute mother looks to the heavens at night and calls one star Henry. She names it after her first son, also called Henry, who died in childbirth, and whom she now sees looking down upon her and her family, a child that is ever present in her memory. And our Henry resents that Henry, who was called by God in the eyes of his mother, when he regards his own poor and neglected status in his destitute neighborhood.

One drawback to the novel is the ending. It is not as satisfying as its rich portrait of Ireland’s rebellion, but it does bring a completion to this work. First, we find Henry in jail, as if the British are not completely incompetent. But if we do not witness his being captured, we are in the room as he is being tortured, and it is a scene as gruesome as some of his murders. Indeed, it is so brilliantly done that the reader feels the experience he is undergoing. But then he escapes, albeit somewhat conveniantly; and in the final scenes he is warned by former colleagues to leave Ireland. Before doing so, however, he gains retribution for the death of his father, contributing to the novel’s sense of completeness.

There are multiple qualities behind the success of this novel. First comes its narrative drive, such as the siege, the assassinations, and the attacks on the British and those Irish who are soldiers of fortune. Next is the character of Henry who is not full of himself, despite his appeal to the ladies and his successful efforts for the cause. Third is the gritty portrait of Dublin and some of rural Ireland. Fourth is the constant tension Henry experiences, both to avoid the English pursuers and to survive the moments of personal happiness. And fifth is its objective portrait of the Irish rebellion, its violence, its infighting, its adaptability, and, finally, the internal politics among its survivors after their success.

Above all, what makes this novel work is its complexity. As history often is. There is the complexity of evil serving a good. There is the injustice of the English presence in a world that is not theirs and among a people who both accept and reject those English. There is the complexity of the ambitious and the selfish taking advantage of good ends to serve personal needs. There is the complexity of the poor struggling for power and the powerful struggling to serve themselves, and often the enemy. And there is the moral complexity of untamed violence acting in the name of justice.

This work is so complete in itself, and satisfying, that I am not tempted to aggressively seek out its companions. But that does not mean I am not curious about those successors. For Doyle has established a clear reputation with his previous works, and one senses the remainder of the trilogy, called The Last Roundup, will offer many pleasures. (October, 2018)

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