The much-loved Irish author (The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, 1996, etc.) breaks impressive new ground with this masterly portrayal of the making of an IRA terrorist – the first volume of a projected trilogy entitled The Last Roundup.
In the vigorous colloquial voice that has become Doyle’s trademark, Henry Smart (b. 1901) narrates the fractious events of his 20 years, beginning with the unlikely courtship of his teenaged mother, (the ironically named) Melody Nash, by Henry’s father and namesake, a one-legged boozer who works as a bouncer (and hired killer) for Dublin madam Dolly Oblong and unseen criminal impresario Alfie Gandon. In a lustily detailed story of want and woe that easily outdistances Angela’s Ashes, Henry Sr. is betrayed to the police, Melody lapses into premature senility, and five-year-old Henry, accompanied by younger brother Victor, becomes a resourceful “street arab.” A handsome, strapping lad who learns quickly and adapts easily to violently shifting circumstances, Henry survives and, in a way, prospers – as a member of the ragtag “Irish Citizen Army” (during the vividly described Easter Monday 1916 cataclysm), a dockworker, the precocious lover of many women (including his teacher, later his wife, the fiery nationalist he will know only as “Miss O’Shea”), and IRA gunman and murderer and a trusted protégé of Michael Collins, and – in the stunning climactic pages – his father’s avenger. Throughout, Doyle manages the virtually impossible feat of mingling Ireland’s dark and bloody early modern history with his brilliantly imagined protagonist’s own amazing story: never for a moment do we feel we’re being given a history lesson, nor does Henry’s forthright amorality relax its firm hold on us.
Absolutely extraordinary. Readers who thought Doyle had outdone himself with the deftly juxtaposed comedy and drama in his recent fiction will be amazed and delighted all over again.