he: A Novel by John Connolly

Review published on June 30, 2017.

He is an imagining of the life of Stan Laurel, of Laurel and Hardy fame, the greatest comedy duo of the silver screen – an influence on everyone that followed. This is a novel about identity – the man not the myth. A genuinely shocking portrait; unsentimental, hard, even tragic. The dark tone is a surprise but it is a triumph of the book that Laurel’s character rings true, other characters are equally well drawn. Connolly lifts the facade of stage and film persona to reveal the heart and soul of the man, deftly written with compassion and empathy. He is well researched but also infused with the writer’s sense of the real person; Laurel’s feelings and inner thoughts. Laurel’s tribulations and regrets are explored in an engaging and intelligent novel that speaks to a crucial human issue – loss.

In staccato chapters, almost cinematic in presentation, Laurel’s life unfolds. Approaching death he conjures up the past; his marriages, his children, Hollywood, the years in the shadows, fame, decline, ill health and the enduring partnership with ‘Babe’, Oliver Hardy. These vignettes advance the story until a credible whole is revealed. Through memories a portrait emerges of a complex man who lived a hard life involving tragedy and deep regret.

The storytelling is clever and vividly realised; a mix of memory, third person accounts and reportage (after Dos Passos – USA). He is not for everyone but those looking for an intense meditation on life and loss will find it rewarding and ultimately uplifting. Connolly has stepped outside the crime genre to publish a literary novel of real merit. All the more impressive for being about a familiar person, flipping perceptions, but being believable. Connolly effectively distinguishes the public persona from the man – the dark and moody ambience is reflective of the narrator, Stan Laurel, as he examines the life lived.

Despite puncturing the cosy bubble of childhood memory (Laurel and Hardy were still lovable TV stars in the 70s/80s), this novel doesn’t diminish​ their art and creates a raw and honest portrait of a man to be admired for his resilience. Rarely will genuine memoir be so candid but we would understand their writers better if they were. I loved this book and thoroughly recommend it.

Paul Burke 5/5

he: A Novel by John Connolly
Hodder & Stoughton 9781473663626 hbk Aug 2017

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