Whilst there’s occasionally interesting stuff in A Star Called Henry, it’s marred by grossly outdated sexual politics that leave a nasty taste in the mouth
Edition published: Vintage, 2000
Acclaim is a strange thing. And as much as people like to state that they don’t care about/pay attention to critical acclaim, it almost always leaves a resonant taste in the mouth.
Irish novelist Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry, the first in his The Last Roundup series, is certainly critically acclaimed. There are many who consider Doyle one of Ireland’s greatest living writers, if not *the* greatest. It’s narrated, in coarse and strikingly frank style, by the teenage protagonist Henry Smart, from his earliest years in poverty in Dublin through his ascension in the IRA and his involvement in both the Easter Rising and The Irish War of Independence.
Sympathy with the Devil
From the off, Henry Smart is a deeply dislikeable voice, but Doyle measures that with his own sense of flare. His prose, whilst poetically loose, is accessibly lyrical. He presents a massive, glitzy Dublin alongside the seedy underbelly which is his emphasis with conviction.
His depictions of violence and the factional nature of the IRA, the paranoia and distrust are vivid and authentic. And there are some genuinely moving moments in the first third of the book; certain deaths and predicaments are shocking, some realisations evergreen and pertinent.
But rather quickly, as Henry becomes more involved with atrocities and delivers mean-spirited assertions, the question becomes as to how much sympathy one has with the protagonist. Essentially, how much do you care about their fate?
And by about halfway through, I didn’t care. And there’s a massive, ugly elephant in the room that seems to have been almost routinely ignored.
Gender Roles from the Middle Ages
That aforementioned elephant is that the sex/gender politics in A Star Called Henry are staggeringly misguided, even by the standards of 1999.
Firstly, the way Doyle writes sex is entirely devoid of romance – though one would expect that from the perspective of a 14-year-old. Its voyeuristic cringe-worthiness is just about manageable until incidents of statutory rape – involving Henry and one of his former teachers – become frequent.
Henry loses his virginity to that teacher, who is twice his age, at 14, and continues to have sexual relations with another older woman. He eventually marries the teacher, Miss O’Shea, at the age of 17 (he fakes his birth certificate to say that he’s 22) – she is 32. At no point is there any sense of impropriety at these happenings, neither in the novel nor in critical reception.
But just as offensive is that every woman in the novel exists entirely as a sex object for Henry. Miss O’Shea is given 1.1-dimensional portrayal via her willingness to partake in revolutionary violence, but that lasts for about two pages.
About 2/3 through, we meet a woman who is just as coarse and brutal as Henry. *Finally*, I sighed. A female character who might amount to more than a twisted take on desire. But no – Doyle writes her out as quickly as she appeared by saying that she wants to ‘rape’ Henry. I wish I was making that up.
Authenticity Vs. Distastefulness
It seems, from his own acknowledgements, Doyle did a fair amount of research into the era he focussed on. But frankly, it doesn’t matter. His gross approach to femininity and women on the page would be pig-headed in any decade.
To still have the same acclaim behind his writing, one assumes that Roddy Doyle has become better at writing women since A Star Called Henry. I’m not sure I’ll trouble myself to find out, though.
You can buy A Star Called Henry here.