In his rousing new novel, Doyle recounts the brutal Irish War of Independence through the clever, voluble voice of Henry Smart, a precocious Dublin street urchin turned IRA assassin. What’s amazing is that Doyle propels his marvelously researched historical account — the first in a trilogy exploring Ireland’s 20th century — with the same quick-witted colloquialism and visceral prose that made his other novels, from The Commitments to Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, such canny delights.
From his star-charmed birth in 1901, Henry narrates his picaresque saga with equal parts poetry, irony, and bluster: how he early on preferred homelessness to his mother’s scarring poverty and wretched tenement; how his absent father was a wily, prevaricating, one-legged hitman (”He made his life up as he went along. Where was his leg? South Africa, Glasnevin, under the sea”); how Henry sweet-talked his way into a brief education, falling in love with his rebellious teacher, Miss O’Shea; how his cunning street cons attracted recruiters from the burgeoning Sinn Féin. Throughout, Doyle evokes his protagonist as a handsome, ruthless, romantic figure — the stuff, literally, of folk songs — but uses a scrupulously observant narrative to strip Henry’s story of sentimentality. Henry’s personal history and Ireland’s national history have no borders in this stellar novel about, ultimately, the exacting price of survival. A