Last year I read Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked in to Doors and was stunned by his ability to so vividly inhabit the voice of a battered woman. In Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, I was stunned again, this time by his ability to so believably recreate the voice of a ten-year old boy.
*DISCLAIMER* My review contains an overview of the entire plot of Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, some of which may be considered a spoiler. As it isn’t a plot driven novel, I don’t think this is a problem, but want to give readers the choice of skimming this review if necessary!
Set, like his previous novels, in the fictional north Dublin suburb of Barrytown, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is a boy’s first hand account of growing up in 1968 at the age of 10. The clever twist though, it that Paddy Clarke is not telling us his story with hindsight, but as if he were still 10 years old and as if this tenth year might never end. Roddy Doyle was also ten in 1968 and it would be easy to see the book as autobiographical – however it would also do it a disservice to suggest that Doyle has simply a good memory for what being ten felt like. As it is, this is one of the most honest, funny and often heartbreaking depictions of what it means to be a child on the cusp of adulthood that I have ever read, presenting the reader with an almost stream of consciousness that powerfully captures that childhood combination of exhilaration, cruelty and confusion.
From the opening lines it is clear we are in the presence of a child;
We were coming down our road. Kevin stopped at a gate and bashed it with a stick. It was Missis Quigley’s gate; she was always looking out the window but she never did anything.
Liam and Aiden turned down their cul-de-sac. We said nothing; they said nothing. Liam and Aiden had a dead mother. Missis O’Connell was her name.
-It’s be brilliant, wouldn’t it? I said.
– Yeah, said Kevin. –Cool
We were talking about having a dead ma.
What follows is a series of narrative fragments, told without context or the understanding, which jump from one subject to another with no discernible structure or order. The opening lines of each paragraph set the scene for a vignette,
‘Sinbad wouldn’t put the lighter fuel in his mouth’
‘When you were doing a funny face or pretending you had a stammer and the wind changed or someone thumped you on the back you stayed that way forever’
‘None of us had Adidas football boots. We were all getting them for Christmas’.
You could say they are memories, but they are experiences, experiences that our narrator has no other understanding of other than what is happening in that moment. Paddy Clarke is not looking back and telling us his story. He is his story. The lack of chapters or apparent structure reminds us that childhood has no overarching structure. As a child we have little comprehension of time, of growth or of how some things may be more important than others. Everything is important. Legend can become fact and the things you know are the things you know, without question.
Wasps got you on purpose. A fella in Raheny swallowed a bee by accident and it stung him in the throat and he died. He choked. He was running with his mouth open and the bee flew in. When he was dying he opened his mouth to say his last words and the bee flew out. That was how they knew.
There is no apparent order to the episodes in the first half of the book, no authorial voice guiding the reader to an overall understanding. In an interview with the Guardian, Doyle said when he started writing the book,
I had no plot, just Paddy. I began to see things through his eyes. Adult hands were big, wrinkles were fascinating, ladders were great, disgusting was brilliant, grown-ups were often stupid
There may be an absence of plot to begin with, but Doyle’s skill is in the highlighting of the commonplace and expert capturing of an authentic voice. We follow Paddy through his lessons at school, his often violent games with his friends, featuring dead legs and Chinese burns, and his love hate relationship with his brother and we can only infer the things that Paddy does not.
Paddy can muse in great detail on the smell of his school desk or the paint peeling on a wall at home, but important details are scant. The reader isn’t even really made aware that the book is set is the 1960s until the mention of shillings and George Best. Such is the universality of childhood.
Doyle perfectly captures that contradictory nature of the childhood mind. Paddy’s opinions quickly become their opposite through the masterful use of the semi-colon. He doesn’t believe in Santa but doesn’t want his letter going in the same envelope as his brother Sinbad’s in case Santa misses it. He likes and hates in the same breathe,
They were our friends because we hated them; it was good to have them around.
When his little brother Sinbad proves to be a skilled football player, Paddy finds himself in a quandary;
I looked at Sinbad. He was just my little brother. I hated him. He never wiped his nose. He cried. He wet the bed. He got away with not eating his dinner. He had to wear specs with one black lens. He ran to get the ball. No one else did that. They all waited for it to come to them. He went through them all, no bother. He was brilliant. He wasn’t selfish like most fellas who could dribble. It was weird looking at him.
Paddy loves his brother, but he is ten so he hates him as well. Because that is what you do to your little brother. Love and hate are in such close proximity for Paddy, as to often co-exist. The laws of the jungle apply and Paddy knows the law. Roddy Doyle has compared his novel the Lord of the Flies and it is easy to see why. In the absence of grown ups, Paddy and his friends play vicious games on one another – making someone eat washing powder, smacking each other on the back with a poker, or simply ostracizing someone because you can.
Where he depicts the cruelty of children with clear eyes, Doyle is equally good at exploring the random joys of childhood, such as building forts or spinning around until you make yourself sick. Even Paddy’s tangential musings are expertly and hilariously rendered.
It must have been great being mental. You could do anything you wanted and you never really got into proper trouble for it. You couldn’t pretend you were mental though; you had to be that way all the time. No homework either and you could slobber your dinner as much as you wanted.
Paddy gives us lots of detail but also leaves lots of blanks, so it is up to the reader to spot the subtle patterns and dig deep for the wider plot which comes in the form of the breakdown of his parent’s marriage. What begins as small hints – a snapped newspaper, muffled shouting, his mother’s tears – begins to take a clearer form for Paddy. He senses change.
You didn’t just fill it with water – my ma showed me; you had to lie the bottle on it’s side and slowly pour the water in or else the air got trapped and the rubber rotted and burst. I jumped on Sinbad’s bottle. Nothing happened. I didn’t do it again. Sometimes when nothing happened It was really getting ready to happen
Something is getting ready to happen to Paddy’s childhood idyll. Paddy deflects the first signs of trouble, at a strained family picnic, by focusing on the bits of biscuit in a shared bottle of Fanta but as his parents relationship deteriorates, he becomes overly aware of every nuance of what is happening in the house but with no knowledge of how it has happened or how he can stop it.
Because I didn’t know how to stop it from starting. I could pray and cry and stay up all night, and that way make sure it ended but I couldn’t stop it from starting. I didn’t understand. I never would. No amount of listening and being there would give it to me. I just didn’t know. I was stupid.
Paddy’s childish attempts to keep his parents together – to make his mother laugh, to distract his father from anger – are heartbreakingly rendered by Doyle. He expertly captures that tragedy of family breakdown with a clarity and a lack of sentimentality that makes Paddy’s turmoil compelling and painful.
I didn’t understand. She was lovely. He was nice. They had four children. I was one of them, the oldest. The man of the house when my da wasn’t there. She held onto us for longer, gripped us and looked over us at the floor or the ceiling. She didn’t notice me trying to push away; I was too old for that. In front of Sinbad. I still loved her smell. But she wasn’t cuddling us; she was hanging on.
Paddy plans to run away, but only to try and draw his parents together again in their shared worry. The potential divorce of his parents is mirrored by a divorce from his friends. He begins to emulate a surly loner from the ‘Corporation’ houses and wants less to do with the old gang. This culminates in a vicious fight with his best friend Kevin, which ends with Paddy being completely ostracized and makes a painful sense of the book’s title. The ‘Ha Ha Ha’ is not the happy laugh of childhood play.
He was squealing now, inside his mouth. I had his hair; I pulled his hair back.
Someone yelled that. I didn’t care. It was stupid.
This was the most important thing that had ever happened to me; I knew it.
For once Paddy is not exaggerating. It is probably the most important thing that has happened to him as the break with his friends is nudging him towards adulthood, just as the absence of his father is pushing him in to the role of the ‘man of the house’. Paddy is beginning to realise that he is on his own.
At the beginning of the novel he describes the joy of his life with his friends
We walked; we ran; we ran away. That was the best, running away. We shouted at watchmen, we threw stones at windows, we played knick knack – and ran away. We owned Barrytown, the whole lot of it. It went on forever. It was a country.
But Paddy cannot run away anymore. He is losing control of his country. Just as the city is encroaching on Barrytown with the building of new estates and new people moving in. so too is reality encroaching on his life. Friendship doesn’t last forever, neither does marriage and the violence that has escalated within his relationships confirms his isolation.
Paddy Clarke –
Paddy Clarke –
Has no da.
Ha ha ha!
I didn’t listen to them. They were only kids.
Paddy may feel that he has gone beyond his friends, but the truth of the matter is, he is only a kid too. Paddy may inch grudgingly towards adulthood, but he remains 10 years old until the end.
When Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha won the Booker Prize in 1993, some critics saw it as a dumbing down – a populist choice written by that comic writer who wrote The Commitments, but Doyle’s exquisitely written novel is so much more than that. It is a devastating lament for the innocence and ignorance of childhood, in which form, structure and language all work in harmony to create a tour de force.
Paddy Clarke is an unforgettable character and Roddy Doyle is a master storyteller.
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