Winner of the Booker Prize in 1993

I made a sincere effort to read as many of the Booker Prize winners as could reasonably be expected earlier this year (see a number of reviews) – but the award of this year’s Booker to Hilary Mantel for Bring Out the Bodies, the sequel to the 2009 winner, Wolf Hall, may well have defeated me. Wolf Hall was a slog, and to have to go through it all over again is a read too far for me, now, when so many other books stand unread, waiting their turn. But one Booker winner that I have read recently is Roddy Doyle’s 1993 winner, Paddy Clarke Ha, Ha, Ha. This novel is now on the GCSE syllabus. It is written entirely through the eyes of ten year old Paddy, the title character, a ten year old boy growing up in Ireland in the late 1960s.
The appeal of the novel, to teenage boys in particular, is obvious – Paddy is a bit of a sociopath, bullying his younger brother almost to the point of resignation, and running around the fields and building sites of his home town without little or no thought as to the consequences of his actions.

I think we are supposed to warm to Paddy because of his vulnerability, but that was hard – he is clearly a bright kid but other than that he has very few saving graces. As an accurate portrait of childhood, as it was then at least, this novel would appeal to teenagers feeling no-one understands their world, even if the world of a teenager in 2012 (or 1993) is much changed from the 1960s. The language used is authentic, even down to the amount of explicit swearing. I can understand that syllabus setters would have considered themselves quite radical, setting as a GCSE text a novel in which there is little traditional narrative, strong language, and lots of slang (“mickey”, “spa”, etc). Paddy is the classic flawed narrator – his account jumps in time and between themes with no warning, and the reader has to work hard to follow the text, being challenged to  keep up. Keeping up is relatively straightforward to an adult reader, but I can see how teenager would find decoding some of his puzzles either rewarding (as the GCSE people would have hoped) or irritating, as I suspect happens more often than not.
My only reservation about this novel was its authenticity. Paddy is a coarse, violent and totally self centred little thug, but he is acutely attuned to the ebbs and flows of his parents’ relationship. While he bullies his brother relentlessly and seems to have no insight into the damage he is doing, when it comes to his parents he acquires an emotional intelligence way beyond his years. Doyle is emphasising the damaging impact of parental relationship breakdown on children, which is unarguably worthy, but my instinct is that while children pick up more than we expect, few are as finely tuned to the nuances of their relationship as Paddy Clarke.