I read historical fiction because I love the careful (and sometimes casual) intersection of the factual and the imagined, the playful ways these two imagined-as-discrete categories reveal one another to be permeable and fluid. The ways I learn the traditional historical timeline – the IRA formed in these years under these leaders with these goals – as well as the ahistorical lessons of any good fiction – the cruelties of income inequality, sacrifices of parents for their children, the transient/eternal commitment of lovers. A balance between these two elements – the history lesson and the human lesson – can be tricky to achieve. So much historical fiction becomes unreadable as it tries to force an independently brilliant narrative onto the historical lesson it wants to teach; similarly, the stories that miss the opportunity to tell a resonant story in the peculiar (misguided?) commitment to telling it Just The Way It Was.
Roddy Doyle’s *A Star Called Henry* is perfect historical fiction. It imagines an unsung hero of Irish history and gives him a biography, a set of triumphs and losses, a grand and history-making ending — even though he never existed and isn’t “real” by any historian’s estimation. It’s perfect in that Henry’s biography – that of a homeless orphan who becomes a larger-than-life myth – depends on fiction and myth for its making (metafiction!) just as the novel relies on the imagined to tell its truer-than-truth story of Irish history.
And what a story. Like my understanding of Russian history I had previously wandered about in an embarrassed ignorance of Irish history hoping I’d never be in a circumstance when I’d have to expose how very little I knew. I knew that the IRA was a thing. That “the troubles” existed. Bombs had exploded, etc. But why? when did it start? who cares? Well *A Star Called Henry* gives this history through Henry in a way that makes it personal, non-partisan and engrossing.
My one complaint comes in what/who gets lost in this story. Henry’s mother, Melody, figures as the tragic figure of the Irish underclass. Lost because of the triumvirate of poverty: inadequate housing, nutrition and health care. Henry, who takes to an independent life on the streets at age four loses his mother and that’s the end of her story. At that point in the novel she becomes the functional symbol of loss and grief for Henry. Likewise his wife – first name unknown – is an independent, fierce and unstoppable woman in her own right, but we know her only through her relation to Henry. I appreciate the narration that makes this Henry’s story, I do. And perhaps its a testament to the strength of these characters and this novel that I wanted more of these secondary characters. I wanted their narratives as full as Henry’s – even though his is a patchy work of missing periods and jumped chronology.
Though having poked around I see that *A Star Called Henry* is but the first novel in a triology. So perhaps this complaint gets redressed in the later two novels. I’ll definitely be reading them, so will let you know. In fact, I’m embarrassed both by my scant knowledge of Irish history and that this is the first book by Roddy Doyle I’ve read. He’s brilliant. Really. And this book, well, I do think it’s historical fiction perfection. So there.