The 28th occurrence of the International Fiction Book Club met on the evening of August 15, 2012 to discuss the novel, A Star Called Henry, by the Booker award winning Irish author Roddy Doyle. To start the discussion I voiced the opinion that, if one was looking for an historical novel that tells the story of the Irish fight for independence, I would not recommend this book. However, If one was looking for a novel with the look and feel of the Irish underclass during the first twenty years of the Twentieth Century with the fight for Irish independence as the backdrop, I would highly recommend this book. All in attendance agreed. Although many of the characters are based on real people, the protagonist of the novel. Henry Smart, is a fictitious mix of the strong-willed, fiercely independent and criminal stew formed by the extreme poverty and unhealthy living conditions in turn of the century Dublin.
Henry is denied his own identity from birth since his brother, who died as a baby, was also named Henry, his father’s name. His mother always saw the dead baby boy as a star in the heavens and wanted another name for the son who was to become more like his father than he would ever know. But his father insisted on calling him Henry. With a twist of irony, Henry calls himself by his mother’s maiden name when confronted by the police. Fergus Nash to the police but Henry Smart became the legend of song through his many exploits and escapes against and from the English colonialists. Henry’s father is a one-legged bouncer at a brothel. He is also a hit-man who clubs those he has been given the name of over the head with his wooden leg. One gruesome scene has him sitting on the chest of a clubbed police constable while he then slits his throat. Reminiscent of Jean Valjean in Les Misérables, he shows his son how to disappear from a chase by dropping into the sewer system and the underground rivers of Dublin. The young Henry, who prowled the streets since he was five years old, uses this tactic after he joins the Irish Republican Army.
Henry as a member of the Independence Movement does not make any decisions of his own until toward the end of the book. He is a rough and tumble teenager who carries out the orders he is given. He learns that he is involved in a class war but only much later becomes aware of the criminal fight that uses the fight for independence as a means to control their underworld criminal activities.
The author excels at dialogue and uses just the right amount of Irish slang to give the flavor of the times emphasis. A key historical factor in the struggle was the failure of the 1916 Easter Rebellion. Doyle works the mass execution of Irish rebels into his story with dramatic effect. We talked about how one of the factual leaders of the rebellion tells Henry that they can never defeat the English. It is only by provoking the English to overreact that they gain support. Gain support they did and after the 1st World War the English made another blunder by sending groups of unemployed ex-servicemen to “clean up the Irish mess”. These so called “Black and Tans” brought out more supporters of the Independence Movement who might otherwise stayed out of the fight.
In closing the discussion, I had to mention William Butler Yeats and his poem, Easter, 1916, in which he uses the refrain, ...wherever green is worn a terrible beauty is born. So too, a terrible beautiful is displayed by Henry Smart.
We next discuss, Lost City Radio, by the Peruvian born author, Daniel Alarcón, on the evening of September 19th, 2012. Hope to see you then around 6:30 at the Blum House.
Posted by Jim Krapf, Library Clerk