BOOK REVIEW: Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry

Soumen Daschoudhury's review of A Star Called Henry

Whilst there’s occasionally interesting stuff in A Star Called Henry, it’s marred by grossly outdated sexual politics that leave a nasty taste in the mouth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.

‘1916 is about contested memory and history’. A BBC Newsnight commemoration of the Easter Rising, 100 years on.

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.  

An old, fractured image of Michael Collins, one of Irish Independence’s loudest voices. Image Credit: National Library of Ireland Flickr.

You can buy A Star Called Henry here.

BOOK REVIEW: Simon Schama’s A History Of Britain Volume II

A History of Britain - Volume 2: The British Wars 1603-1776: Amazon.co.uk:  Schama, Simon: 9781847920133: Books

In his second volume of the history of Britain, Simon Schama proves himself way ahead of the early-noughties curve and presents a thorough dissection of modern(ish) British politics

Edition Published By: The Bodley Head, 2009

Regular readers of the blog will remember I reviewed the first volume of Simon Schama’s History of Britain a few weeks ago. In it, the legendary art historian leans on his effortlessly poetic tendencies to deliver a fulsome, zinging reading of early and medieval British civilisation.

In Volume II: The British Wars 1603-1775, his emphasis is more on an era that built the foundations of so much of modern Britain. It makes for slightly dryer, date-heavy reading. But Schama’s thorough understanding of the magnitude of this period and forward-thinking sensitivities make it just as intriguing.

The Union

In March 2021, it’s in no way unfeasible that the United Kingdom may not be a thing for much longer. Independence movements in Scotland and Wales now seem to have the strongest grips on their respective populaces than at any point during my lifetime.

It’s incredibly pertinent then, that in The British Wars, Schama spends so much time considering the Union in the 17th century. Alarmingly, that prophetic sense he showed in the first volume feels even more forthright here:

‘‘The obsession with ‘union’ and ‘uniformity’ that consumed both James and Charles I turned out to guarantee hatred and schism’.

But instead of extensively focusing on the mainstream, ‘classic’ stories that we’ve all heard a thousand times, he focuses on how relations between Scotland and England were a crucial catalyst for the Civil War, or political engineering by players largely side-lined by the usual narrative.

That does mean that a genuine and deep interest in this era is probably a requirement. But if you have that interest then Schama paints a fascinating fresco.

Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of Scotland’s Independence-favouring Scottish National Party. Image Credit: Scottish Government Flickr.

Modernity And Revision

The main focus of Volume II is how these two centuries set the ball rolling for everything to take off in future Britain, for good or ill. For example, Schama showcases this as the first golden era for propaganda and the printed press, both often used nefariously.

There are also reappraisals of various figures – particularly the likes of Oliver Cromwell and several major colonial players in later chapters – who really have no business being considered game-changing heroes. There’s a quote about Cromwell in the chapter ‘Looking for Leviathan’ that’s likely to ignite fuses on either side of the political divide in 2021, describing Cromwell’s statue outside the House of Commons as ‘a joke in questionable taste’.

Oliver Cromwell’s infamous statue outside the House of Commons in London. Image Credit: UK Parliament Flickr.

The Trouble with Colonialism

Where Schama really drives the nail regarding revisionism is in the final chapter, ‘The Wrong Empire’. It’s here that he describes the Transatlantic slave trade in suitably depressing detail and offers a proverbial middle finger to anybody who might try and claim it as innocuous.

And he makes up the shortfall in lyricism with strident, righteous opinions:

‘The idea that an empire so noisily advertised as an empire of free Britons should depend on the most brutal coercion of enslaved Africans is not just an academic paradox. It was the condition of the empire’s success, its original sin; a stain that no amount of righteous self-congratulation at its eventual abolition can altogether wash away.’

A statue of Queen Victoria, who presided over the British Empire, outside Windsor Castle. Image Credit: SouthEastern Star Flickr.

Whilst it’s arguable that, despite his efforts, Schama never really goes far enough to condemn Empire, he goes further than most would’ve done in the early noughties. It’s still uncommon to find passages like the following in books by white historians today:

‘Beyond the opportunism of personal plunder lay a much deeper question and one that the British Empire would face time and time again in its march across the globe. Was its military power to be used to strengthen or to weaken the native government they claimed to be ‘assisting’?’

And you get the sense that Schama, like me and many others, believes that time has proven it to be unwaveringly the latter.

The same belittlement that ran through Imperialist attitudes then still exists in the way many Westerners feel about Africa & Asia today. And if Schama’s endeavour here isn’t to expose that full-on, then he at least asks plenty of questions to that end.

You can buy A History Of Britain Volume II: The British Wars 1603-1775 here.

World Book History #2: Dubliners

Where do you even start with Brexit these days? It’s safe to say that most of the country has spent the last three years in a state of almost complete confusion. Whatever your views, it has been incredibly divisive both in Britain and on the European continent.

James Joyce’s Dubliners was first published in 1914, when Europe was on the cusp of the first world war. Joyce would also be alive for the beginning of the second world war over twenty years later. He spent much of his life living in and travelling around Europe and used his worldliness as a crucial component in all of his writings.

Dubliners mostly revolves around life in Joyce’s city of birth and is written from a despairing point of view. But given that Joyce put so much stock in European identity and unity, there are lots of parallels to be drawn between Europe in 1914 and modern Britain.

Three stories in particular exemplify this, and reflect the disassociation and disappointment many people are feeling.

After the Race

This story, although ultimately sad, is delivered through the lens of a proud European identity, centring around four friends from different states and with different backgrounds. 

The four men represent the organic friendships that many people both in modern Britain and Europe have formed thanks to freedom of movement. Joyce clearly references wanderlust and community inclusion, as well as the alliances the European Union symbolises. 

Brexit has given voice to many people who feel certain ways about national British identity. But for many younger people in particular, the same desire to travel and indulge in foreign culture is very present in After the Race. In both 1914 and 2019, Europe represents change and exploration in the most positive way.

A Little Cloud

These days, London is considered to be one of the greatest cities in the world. When Joyce wrote A Little Cloud it was not nearly as buzzing, but it still signified freedom, art and a place where one could spread their wings and live a fulfilling life.

As a city that voted Remain in the EU referendum, it’s easy to see that the same joys and excitements that inspired Joyce still exist today. London is proudly multicultural and has a huge amount of growth and development as a result. Whereas most of England’s South-East voted to leave, London represents the continued love of multiculturalism that Joyce had.

A statue of James Joyce in Dublin. Credit: Mike_fleming

Ivy Day in the Committee Room

Joyce was famously a proud Irish nationalist and given that Brexit has reopened old wounds resonating from the Troubles, the inspirations behind Ivy Day in the Committee Room have somewhat come full circle.

But Ivy Day also describes the perceived imbalance between the ‘metropolitan elite’ and the rest of society that informed much of the Brexit vote. There are particular references to patriotism – a word that has become just as muddied and uncertain as everything else since Brexit – that could be analogous to politicians on either side of the 2016 referendum, depending on your opinion. The independence referred to in Ivy Day exists under completely different circumstances to Brexit, but it’s profound in that the same debates about national identity were being had a hundred years ago as they are now.

James Joyce’s Dubliners is proof that history has a way of haunting the present. You can find out the other ways it does so by picking up a copy today.