BORSTAL BOY / Brendan Behan. 1958 (362 pgs)
First Sentence: “Friday, in the evening, the landlady shouted up the stairs: “Oh God, oh Jesus, oh Sacred Heart, Boy, there’s two gentlemen to see you”.”
Prevailing Narrative Voice: First-person narrator in an immediate past tense. As the narrator is the main character narrating his own story, and as dialogue frequently forwards the action, the narrative feels as if it is occurring in present tense even thought the verbs are in the past.
What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: The reader immediately learns that two “gentlemen” are cops and that the “Boy” they’re after is the main character, an Irish Sinn Fein terrorist. The narrator, Brendan Behan, and the cops exchange various levels of insult, but there seems to be an odd kind of respect between the arresting English Sergeant and the boy. The action is quick and dialogue between them, short. We also learn that he is sixteen years old.
What the reader learns in the first ten pages: The reader may not get a clear picture of the house they are in even though the narrator refers to places in the room: window, door, fireplace, chair, etc. Every item seems to be generic and seemingly undecorated. The curtains are just curtains; no color, texture or pattern. As it turns out they are in a boarding house and Brendan feels like an outsider, hence the generic feeling. The next setting (and one that he will probably be in for a while) is prison with all of the generic imagery of his cell, the washroom and the prison personnel. Regardless of location, the narrator seems an ebullient youth and well versed in the Irish / English conflict, mostly from personal experience. There is a brief scene during the arrest in which the sergeant tells Behan “what a silly lot of chaps” these Irish boys are and how they “don’t even know why (they’re) bloody well doing it”. The sergeant dares him to name the Six Counties. The narrator pretends not to know them all, yet underneath his glib exterior he is passionate and committed to his work. In a brief scene in the washroom he strikes up a relationship with another prisoner who offers him cigarettes and a newspaper. Later, the narrator hears him singing an Irish song from a far off cell.
Character: As this seems to be a self narrated biography the reader receives a great deal of information from the narrator’s perspective, particularly his thoughts. The reader learns what the narrator looks like based on comparisons he makes to other characters. The reader sees other characters, most of who are prison guards and police officers who dislike him intensely, from the narrator’s biased point of view.
Setting: As mentioned above, the narrator is in prison for much of the first ten pages, and it looks like he is going to stay there for a while. The larger setting is the Irish / English conflict that has been in progress for decades. Through the narrator’s brief musings on his being incarcerated the reader understands why he feels there is no shame in being so.
Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page: The narrative flow of the first ten pages is very smooth. Behan’s narrator is an amiable storyteller. It is difficult to guess where the story is going since prison seems like a dead end option. I expect the book to offer insight, perhaps balanced, perhaps not, into the narrator’s participation in Sinn Fein and how it affected the rest of his life. I suspect that the reader will learn a bit about the Ancient conflict between the green and the orange.
Random Comments: Brendan Behan was a poet and a playwright whose material came mostly from the incarcerated periods of his life as well as his connection to the Irish Republican Army.