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Socialist Review, December 1993

Kevin Orr


Childhood memories

From Socialist Review, No. 170, December 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha
Roddy Doyle
Secker and Warburg £12.99

Roddy Doyle’s star has been rising ever since the publication of his brilliant first novel, The Commitments, in 1990. This, like his second novel The Snapper, was turned into a successful film. His third, The Van, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize last year and his latest, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, the most accomplished and serious of his books, won it this year.

Set in Dublin in 1968, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha tells the story of a ten year old boy, Paddy, through his own eyes and with his own misconceptions. Although we are still in the Barrytown of the previous trilogy, this is quite a different kind of novel. Doyle’s style is less centred around the characters’ speech and this is far from being a ‘feel good’ book.

That is not to say that it lacks Doyle’s sharp humour, for example in his description of the Grand National – the local boys’ dash over hedges and through gardens – their reaction to the word ‘fuck’, or when we are introduced to Alan Baxter: ‘He was a sap. But he had Scalextric.’

Yet it is the detail and authenticity of what Paddy sees and feels that sets this book apart. Paddy watches The Virginian on television, their fridge is a Kelvinator, and from the news he thinks that the Americans are ‘fighting gorillas in Vietnam’. The confusion and helplessness of a young boy, especially during his parents’ arguments, are convincingly and compassionately expressed, for unlike in the other books, where the family remains solid and secure despite everything, here we see it shatter. ‘It wasn’t lots of little fights. It was one big one, rounds of the same fight. And it wouldn’t stop after fifteen rounds like in boxing.’

The contradictions of the love and tension found by a child in the family, which is perhaps the theme of this novel, and the painful decisions that child has to make, are written about with great subtlety and sympathy. Here is a book about childhood, then, which is touching without being sugary or sentimental and which is never simplistic or just boyish.

Every one of Doyle’s books is a gem. This is the best. It is worthy of much more than a literary prize handed out by a union busting multinational.

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