With A Star Called Henry, Roddy Doyle attempts to create a work that chronicles some of the most monumental moments in Irish history from the viewpoint of a slum boy desperate to escape his poverty and make a name for himself.
Doyle successfully creates a realistic, gritty, often brutal portrayal of the poverty into which Henry Smart is born. There are unflinching descriptions of the hardship Henry and his brother, Victor, must endure on the streets, as well as Doyle’s customary humour amongst the harsh realities of poverty. Furthermore, Doyle describes Victor’s death, and Henry’s reaction to this movingly, but without falling into the trap of over-sentimentalising such a moment.
In a change from his other novels, in A Star Called Henry Doyle has created a protagonist who is not automatically the subject of the reader’s empathy. The violent, cocky, arrogant nature of Henry makes it a challenge for the reader to feel for him, despite the horrendous childhood he has endured and the suffering he has seen. This is in stark contrast to Paula Spencer in The Woman Who Walked Into Doors and Paddy Clarke, in Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. This is in no small part due to Henry’s ability not only to endure violence and suffering, but his willingness to subject others to cruelty and violence without any hesitation.
Roddy Doyle brings a breath of fresh air to the subject of Irish republicanism, especially so in his portrayal of the leaders of the cause. There is no paying reverence to the giants of Irish history here, but rather the bringing of these figures down to earth. Michael Collins, Padraig Pearse, James Connolly and Joseph Plunkett are all shown with their weaknesses and character flaws. Doyle makes them men: fallible, human.
The book shines with the strength of its cameo characters, such as Granma Nash, Henry’s book-loving grandmother, and one of the few constants in his life, and Ivan, the IRA Captain, trained by Henry, who becomes a monster of his own making. These characters amongst others are well-crafted, rounded individuals who make the situations in which Henry finds himself, as well as the portrayal of the period, much more believable.
This is needed in the book, because all aspects of the story, and many of the parts Henry claims to have played in the history of the period, especially so the Easter Rising and its aftermath, are not entirely credible, and throw up many questions about the story’s historical accuracy. Although some may see this as an obstacle to the book reaching its full potential, and may question the purpose of writing a book so entangled in the history of Ireland without ensuring its historical accuracy, this would be missing the point. Yes, undoubtedly, the book’s background is historical but at its heart is the story of one man, Henry Smart, and it’s his larger-than-life character that pushes and develops the novel.
Henry’s quest for information about his father’s disappearance and the reasons behind this are used throughout as a device to give the reader further information about the Dublin underworld to which Henry is so tightly entangled. As Henry sees that his usefulness as a hired killer to the powers that be has come to an end, he at last realises that he has almost become his father. Both are paid killers, both dispensable, but Henry manages to escape the fate his father could not, Henry manages to escape with his life.
It is this ending that truly makes A Star Called Henry stand out from other works of historical fiction. It questions all the assumptions Henry, and perhaps the reader, has made throughout the book: we have been judging rebels (and Henry amongst them) as freedom fighters, killers for a cause, rather than cold-blooded murderers. Up to this point, it can be claimed that the book has been glorifying the actions of the rebels, glorifying the murder of policemen, soldiers and innocents civilians, but in these last few pages the book makes a stark reversal. At last, we see the book for what it really is. It is a book that examines the morality of political murder, that challenges and questions the actions behind the creation of the Irish state. In the end we realise, as does Henry, that the architects of the new state did not care about the poor and hungry, did not care about slum children, did not care about Henry, but merely cared about getting on in the world.
The New York Times: "Astonishing. . . . Narrated with a splendor, wit, and excitement that lift Doyle's writing to a new level."
The Washington Post: "Stunning . . . not only Doyle's best novel yet; it is a masterpiece, an extraordinarily entertaining epic."
Publishers Weekly: "Doyle just gets better and better...This is history evoked... with... some mythical embellishments and a driving narrative that never falters."
The Independent: "A brave and fascinating book."
Time : "Doyle vividly portrays the wild passions of an Irish Everyman . . . [and] the birth of the modern Irish nation.”
The Irish Times: "A masterpiece"
Literary Review: "The best novelist of his generation."