A Star Called Henry represents Roddy Doyle’s departure from fiction in contemporary settings and, in part, from the comic tone that has characterized his work since the late 1980’s. However, in some of his work—Paddy Clark, Ha Ha Ha (1993) and The Woman Who Walked into Doors (1997)—Doyle portrays not only urban poverty but its inherent tragedy, two themes that are important in A Star Called Henry. This novel’s greater innovation lies in its use of historical events—particularly Dublin’s Easter Rising of 1916 and the violence of the years that followed—as a background for its fictional central character, Henry Smart. As the first volume of a proposed historical trilogy, A Star Called Henry covers only the first twenty years of Henry Smart’s life, beginning in 1902 and ending on the eve of the 1921 treaty, which created an independent Ireland except, as it worked out, for the six Protestant northern counties.
This work follows the tradition of the picaresque novel, the episodic adventures of a rogue hero. Thus the novel’s first section is devoted to Henry’s first seven or eight years. He is born to Melody and Henry Smart, a couple doomed by their desperate poverty. Henry is their second son, the first, also Henry, having died in early infancy. This Henry, however, is notable for his glowing health and beauty, qualities that remain with him through his adolescence. Now his mother often shows him the star that she believes represents his brother. In fact, many of Henry’s siblings die, even his favorite little brother, Victor, with whom he makes a sort of life on the streets for several years after their father, a one-legged bouncer in Dolly Oblong’s brothel, abandons the family and their mother sinks into depression and madness.
Henry teaches Victor what he knows of stealing and cadging food; he even gets him into school for a few short days, thanks to the generosity of Miss O’Shea, a teacher rebellious enough to recognize Henry’s ability and to sneak the boys past the school’s regulations. The high point of this time is the sudden appearance of Henry’s father when the boys are about to be trapped by an angry mob after they have disrupted a state procession for Edward VII, on the occasion of his visiting Dublin.
Henry, Sr., sweeps the boys out of the crowd and carries them to safety through the Dublin sewers, a territory he knows well from his work as a hit man. He has found the sewers an excellent place to dispose of bodies, as well as to make his own escapes. The pull of underground water—Dublin’s streams as well as sewers—remains with Henry for the rest of his life and helps him make several close escapes. Henry receives another legacy from his father—the old man’s wooden leg, which he keeps at his side through most of his adventures, a talisman and, more important, a weapon.
The second section is set during the Easter Rising of 1916. Henry has been recruited into the Irish Citizen Army, outfitted (and taught to read) by James Connolly, who has recognized his abilities and who now heads the ragged crew who have taken over the General Post Office. Henry is an able and resourceful fighter (thanks to his years on the streets), but he has no interest in Irish independence. “I didn’t give a shite about Ireland,” he says, but he does feel the excitement of great events, and he likes the violence. As he fires his rifle at the surrounding businesses, he feels as if he is shooting all the possessions denied to him and to all of his class. At the post office, he is present for historic proclamations of independence by national heroes including James Connolly and Patrick Pearse.
Also at the post office he finds his old teacher, Miss O’Shea again. She has left teaching for the life of a revolutionary, although she chafes at the way the men dismiss the women’s abilities out of hand, relegating them to...
(The entire section is 1602 words.)