Book ReviewsIrish authors

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle [Booker prize]

Is it possible to appreciate a novel and yet not particularly enjoy reading it? To admire the technical prowess of the author and their creativity but be missing the buzz of having a pleasurable experience?

That’s certainly been my reaction to a few of the novels I’ve read as part of my Booker prize project. I’m thinking in particular of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children but to a lesser extent I had the same feeling when I read  In A Free State by V. S Naipaul and S Byatt’s Possession: A Romance  . 

paddy clarkeIt’s happened again with my latest Booker prize read; the 1993 winner Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle.

This is a tale of one year in the life of 10-year-old Paddy Clarke who lives with his mum, dad, younger brother Francis (aka Sinbad) and baby sister Deidre in the fictional suburb of Barrytown, North Dublin. It begins with him as a mischievous boy who roams around Barrytown with his mates and ends with him becoming “the man of the house” when his parents split up and dad leaves th family home.

In between lie multiple adventures and episodes involving interactions with family members, friends and teachers. Paddy and his best mate Kevin (the instigator of most of their adventures) like to start fires, write their names in wet cement, harass elderly ladies and occasionally steal from shops.  Their playgrounds are the bushes surrounding the neighbours’ gardens and building sites which sprout and then disappear.

We got material from our houses and made headbands. Mine was a tartan one, with a seagull’s feather. We took off our jumpers and shirts and vests. James O’Keefe took off his trousers and rode through Bayside in his underpants. His skin was stuck to the saddle when he was getting off, from the sweat; you could hear the skin clinging to the plastic. We threw his trousers onto the roof of a garage, and his shirt and his vest. We put his jumper down a shore.

Paddy is an exuberant narrator who tells his tale in a sporadic, fragmented style that shifts from one event to another with seemingly little connection. What holds everything together however are the glimpses we get of Paddy trying to make sense of the changes in his world, particularly in the relationship between his parents.

He stays awake every night to listen for raised voices coming from the kitchen or the bedroom.  He doesn’t understand the shouting and the screamed whispers. But he does want them to stop. At first he tries sheer force of will:

—— Stop.

There was a gap. It had worked; I’d forced them to stop. Da came out and went in to the television. I knew the wait of his steps and the time between them, then I saw him.

They didn’t slam any doors: it was over.

When that stops working he decides to become a model student, even if that means getting on Kevin’s bad side. He reasons that if he works hard in school there’d be no reason for his parents to argue. But gradually, when he sees his father hit his mother, he realises that his efforts have been in vain.

He’s a complex boy, often picking on his brother Sinbad, burning his mouth with lighter fuel and kicking him in bed at night. It’s all a front. Paddy doesn’t want to hurt the child, he just wants him to stay awake, to have someone to talk to rather than just listen to the arguments downstairs.

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is very much a novel in the Bildungsroman mode. Paddy is  pushed into growing up but he only does so to a limited extent. His knowledge of the world is beginning to change. He sees change but doesn’t understand it. He just knows that his playground is getting smaller, disappearing under concrete. He knows his parents are going their separate ways. But the why eludes him. Understandable really given that he’s still just 10 when the novel ends.

Boyle’s ability to make Paddy an authentic voice is impressive. He captures the bravado and the insecurities superbly. There were some points at which I wanted to laugh out loud (the steeplechase game they play around the neighbours’ gardens is a hoot). And times when I felt saddened by the pain this boy endures.

Plenty to applaud therefore in this novel. So why didn’t I enjoy it more? I think it comes down to my feeling that the narrative was repetitive. Anecdote piled on top of anecdote on top of anecdote with not enough variation for me.  I found I was skimming a lot of paragraphs which is never a good sign. I did find it endearing and touching at the end (where the significance of the book’s title becomes apparent) but getting to that point was often hard work.


About the Book:  Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle was published in 1993 by Secker and Warburg. It won the Booker Prize that year.

About the Author:> Doyle was born in Dublin which has been the setting for many of his novels. He spent several years as an English and geography teacher before becoming a full-time writer in 1993. Doyle’s first three novels, The Commitments (1987), The Snapper (1990) and The Van (1991) comprise The Barrytown Trilogy, a trilogy centred on the Rabbitte family. All three novels were made into successful films.

Why I read this book:Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is one of the five titles remaining to be read from my Booker Prize project. Since March is ReadingIrelandmonth hosted by Cathy at it seemed like a good time to dust it off the shelves.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

21 thoughts on “Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle [Booker prize]

  • I took a college class that was half James Joyce and half Roddy Doyle. Loved the Doyle, hated the Joyce. I thought The Barrytown Trilogy was fantastic and funny, and I later went on to teach The Woman Who Walked into Doors in my own class. Paddy Clark is the one I remember least, for some reason.

    • I dont know that I will read any more of Doyle’s work. Haven’t ruled him out at all but equally not thinking ‘I must read the rest of Barrytown’

      • It’s funny. Not so much dark like Paddy Clark. It’s a quick read, too, because it’s most dialogue.

  • It’s a whole since I read this. I seem to remember liking it, though I don’t remember much else now. I seem to remember enjoying the voice of Paddy.

    • He was certainly an individualised voice – I really liked the characterisation.

  • I think a lot of this has to do with when you read it and how you go in reading this book in particular. I get what you mean about the anecdote, but then I remember working at a summer camp with kids and their whole lives are anecdotes and they drive you crazy with them so it just clicked for me. And that made this quote of yours perfectly apt to me:

    Boyle’s ability to make Paddy an authentic voice is impressive. He captures the bravado and the insecurities superbly. There were some points at which I wanted to laugh out loud (the steeplechase game they play around the neighbours’ gardens is a hoot). And times when I felt saddened by the pain this boy endures.

    • I’ve not had that experience and since I dont have children myself, my knowledge of how their brains work is limited to seeing my nephews and neices. And of course digging into my own recollections. I do remember oscillating between being all grown up and then the next minute wanting to cry at the slightest thing!

  • The answer to your opening question is an emphatic YES from me. In fact, it happens rather often. That is why giving a book “stars” is so hard sometimes. I swear I read a book by this author way back when but it is not in my records. I know I have always intended to read more.

    • I never went down the stars route because I knew it would be so hard to make decisions. I have the Goodreads stars system but its always tough which is why so many of my ratings end up as a three

  • I bloody loved Paddy Clarke Ha ha ha when I read it the year it won the Booker. I suspect I might be more critical if I read it now but at the time I’d never read anything like it and it so reminded me of all the tales my dad told me about the things he got up to as a little boy so I guess I identified with it in a strange way.

    • It’s true, it has a unique feel to it or at least I think it did but just yesterday I was reading comments that a lot of readers thought it was too close in style to James Joyce…

      • Every Irish writer who does “experimental” writing seems to get compared with Joyce. It’s quite a burden to bear I would have thought

        • I imagine a lot of Irish writers getting very annoyed with the comparison. It’s incredibly hard to be completely original – don’t all authors take inspiration from those who went before them?

  • I am currently experiencing the ‘appreciate but not particularly enjoying’ thing with my Stella Prize shortlist reading. I’m finding it tough to get through one particular magic realism book despite the fact that the writing is quite lovely – I’m just not that interested in the story!

    I read Paddy many years ago and remember very little about it (except that I enjoyed it). Have been meaning to reread although I have a few other Doyles in my TBR stack.

    • Magic realism and I don’t have a happy relationship at all. One of the reasons I struggled with Midnight’s Children

  • The novel I’ve read for Reading Ireland Month (I hope to have a review up tomorrow), Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane, sounds somewhat similar in that it’s in fairly short fragments and tells the story of an Irish boy, but it spans a longer period, from when he’s about five until he’s a young man. This is probably more lighthearted overall. I do like a book that captures what it’s like to be a child. I can sympathize with it being a difficult read, though. The Booker often chooses books that are technically impressive but not terribly readable for your average reader. Midnight’s Children, as you’ve mentioned, is a good example. It took me two attempts to read it and didn’t feel worth it once I did.

    • I almost gave up on the Rushdie several times … The Deane novel you’re reading would at least have some variety because the voice of he five year old would be significantly different to the voice of the adult. it would give the variety I think I was missing with Doyle

  • It’s such a long time since I read this book but I do remember that my partner, who is the same age as Roddy Doyle, enjoyed it much more than I did. He felt it captured the essence of being a little boy.

    • His characterisation was excellent I thought. I just needed something beyond that.

  • Wow! I have ignored this novel in book stores many times because I will just get the books on 1001 Best Novels-of All-Time list. Soooooo, I will read it too since it is about children’s life story. But I wonder why it’s not included on the list.

    • So many books that should be on that list are not there, and many that are included I wonder why there are there.


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