May 2, 2008

paddy clarke ha ha ha by Roddy Doyle

Set in the fictional Barrytown, near Dublin, in 1968, this book tells the story of ten year-old Patrick, or Paddy. His story is told in the first person, and the first part of it is about Paddy’s, his younger brother Francis’ (known as Sinbad), and friends’ adventures and antics. Paddy and his friends spend most of their time outside, playing in the streets and getting into trouble. They spend their time doing things like trying to give a dead rat a Viking funeral, or throwing live bees into tar. There are some other things rather worse than that, but even though they’re brutal, they’re done with a sort of innocence that allows Paddy to remain likeable all through the story. His is a life of freedom – the kind of perfect childhood freedom that even if not experienced exists somewhere in our minds – and of wonder – he has the ability to find interest in everything. It is also, as the story unfolds, a life of loneliness and dread.

I was impressed with how accurately this book captures childhood – many people had told me it did, but I didn’t expect it to be quite this good. Childhood logic, childhood language, a child’s vision of the world – Roddy Doyle nailed everything down perfectly. The way the story is told is in itself the most perfect example of this. Passages such as the following brought back childhood memories of my own:
-It's not Adidas. It's Ad-dee-das.
-It's not. It's Adidas.
-It isn't. It's eee.
-Spa-face; it's eeeeeee.
- i i i i i i.
None of us had Adidas football boots. We were all getting them for Christmas. I wanted the ones with the screw-on studs. I put that in my letter to Santy but I didn't believe in him. I only wrote to him because my ma told me to, because Sinbad was writing to him. Sinbad wanted a sleigh. Ma was helping him to write his letter. Mine was finished. It was in the envelope but she wouldn't let me lick the flap yet because Sinbad's letter had to go in as well. It wasn't fair. I wanted an envelope of my own.
An inevitable consequence of this approach is the fact that the story is rather jumpy, in the same way a child’s (or even an adult’s) trains of thoughts are jumpy. Paddy often interrupts the recounting of an episode to tell another that the first one reminded him of, and sometimes the first one is not resumed. But this jumpiness didn’t bother me at all, even if it is the kind of thing that normally does bother me. I just went along with the story and gladly followed whichever direction it took. Not many writers would be able make this approach work, but Roddy Doyle managed with ease.

The tone of the book changes a lot about halfway through. The situation at Paddy Clarke’s home is not the best, and it’s getting worse. His father is unapproachable, and his mother is constantly busy with his two baby sisters. Then his parents begin to fight almost every evening, and Paddy stays awake in bed listening to their whispered shouts. Again, Roddy Doyle managed to capture a child’s perspective of things perfectly. The idea of an imminent divorce is unpleasant enough for an adult, but for a child, it seems even more enormous and terrifying, because it’s only half understood. Paddy Clarke tries to understand why his parents are fighting, but he reaches no conclusion. He’s nice, he thinks, and she’s lovely, so it shouldn’t be happening. And yet it is, and he doesn’t know what to do – he doesn’t realize that perhaps there is nothing he can do.

Lonely and afraid, Paddy Clarke unsuccessfully tries to get closer to his little brother, the one person who supposedly understands exactly what he’s going through, and he distances himself from his troublemaking friends. He tries to distract his parents, to make them laugh, so that they won’t fight, but to no avail. He cannot keep the inevitable from happening.

paddy clarke ha ha ha is filled with the joy, freedom, cruelty and overwhelming sadness of childhood. The dialogue is often funny, Paddy’s voice is fully believable, and the last third of the story is very touching. Plus, Roddy Doyle’s use of language is fantastic. I will leave you with a description I loved:
There was a bakery in Raheny guarded by two women. It had the best smell of any shop. It wasn't bread; it wasn't a rushing smell, like steam surrounding you. It was quieter, part of the air, not warm and smothering and upsetting. The smell made me feel good. The cakes were on shelves inside the all-glass counter, not stacks of them, a few of each on plates two feet apart down the shelves; small cakes, not huge things exploding with cream. The cakes were bright, hard in a nice way - biscuits that were too good to be called biscuits. Like cakes in a fairy tale; you could have built things out of them.
Other blog reviews:
Rhinoa's Ramblings
Valentina's Room
What am I Reading
A Fraternity of Dreamers
Adventures in Reading
Farm Lane Books


  1. Well this one's going right onto the TBR list. I have a weakness for books with children as the central character that are written from their point of view. And you're right, it's rare that they're written well. It's hard to pull off, but it sounds like this one was really done well. Thanks!

  2. Yay! And I just got a copy off of Bookmooch :)

  3. yay for Bookmooch! I hope you enjoy it, Chris :)

  4. This is one I've been looking forward to reading as well. Thanks for the review!

  5. "I was impressed with how accurately this book captures childhood – many people had told me it did, but I didn’t expect it to be quite this good. Childhood logic, childhood language, a child’s vision of the world – Roddy Doyle nailed everything down perfectly."
    I'm sold - it's on the list(!!!???!!!)
    Have a great weekend!

  6. I am glad you enjoyed it as much as I did a couple of months ago. I loved the dialogue between the children and was interested in the shift in the tone of the novel about halfway through as well. I hope to read more by him in the future.

  7. Oh, I loved that bakery passage! "Like cakes in a fairy tale; you could have built things out of them." I can just picture them perfectly in my mind.

    Another wonderful review, Nymeth...thank you! Have a wonderful weekend!

  8. I have this one on my shelf, but I've been putting it off because I've been afraid that it will be kind of like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man which I really really disliked (both times I read it). I think I'll have to give this one another look!

  9. Nicola, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

    Ken: The ever growing list :P I hope you enjoy it when you get to it. And thanks, you too!

    Rhinoa: Me too. Before this I read two of his short stories and they were very good as well.

    Debi: Thank you, you too :) And yes, I could picture them perfectly!

    Trish: Worry not - I HATE Joyce and yet I loved this.

  10. Ugh--I'm glad I'm not the only one. I didn't want to use *that* word...but that's about how I feel as well. ;)

  11. I try to avoid it as well, but for Joyce I will make an exception ;) Seriously, I know that a lot of people like him and I can see his merit, but I just can't get into him at all. And I tried.

  12. This is another one of those books I owned for ages! That's why I included this in my original Final Twelve list for the Book Award Reading Challenge. Obviously that list and the books I've read have been inconsistent, to say the least :P

    I hope I get to read this before July. Sure looks fun!

  13. Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha is indeed a fantastic novel. Doyle does something that few others can do when writing fiction from a child's perspective: make them normal. Where all others seem to want their child narrators to be precocious in some way - usually vocabulary, like they know big words. That Doyle forgets all about precocious children and gets the voice spot on of a naive young boy is an achievement. And, based on initial reviews of James Kelman's new work, Kieron Smith, Boy, who also apparently gets the kiddy voice spot on, Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha is a long way off being bettered.


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