My review of Danny Boy by Barry Walsh, a novel of beautifully drawn relationships and the sometimes funny, sometimes painful experience of growing up on a council estate in 1960s London.
Some books just put you right into a place and time, and Danny Boy is one of those. The place is a Pimlico housing estate, and the time is the 1960s. Barry Walsh clearly knows this time and place well—it was also the setting of his debut novel, The Pimlico Kid—and it shows in the lovingly detailed descriptions of people and places and the habits and mores of the time. As a reader, you really feel part of this world.
For Danny, though, all that matters is that he’s sixteen years old and he’s busy navigating the uncertain borders between boyhood and manhood. He’s bright enough to stay at school, but feels jealous of his friends who are working and have more money to spend. He’s desperate to lose his virginity, but he doesn’t have the heart to pursue girls as relentlessly as his friends do—or claim to. And then there’s the lure of gang life, exemplified in the menacing figure of Gasping George, the local gangster who has snared Danny’s friend Nobby and is clearly trying to reel Danny in next.
Danny has secrets and shame to overcome too. His friend’s younger brother, Jinx, has never been “right” since falling from a wall while playing at a bomb site years earlier. Danny witnessed the whole thing and was the one who rushed to get help, perhaps saving his life. But as the story goes on, Danny’s role in Jinx’s accident gradually shifts from witness and saviour to something much murkier.
Danny’s relationships with friends, enemies, potential girlfriends and others around the estate are beautifully and sensitively drawn. With Jinx, he is patient and loving when so many others are irritable and try to get rid of him. It’s endearing at first, but as we understand more about what really happened that day at the bomb site, it starts to look more like over-compensation.
With his friends, Danny Boy is often in performance mode, saying and doing what he thinks he needs to say and do to be “one of the boys”. With adults, he’s often the good, well-behaved boy among his more rebellious friends. At school, he’s bright; on the estate, he often tries to play that down. With girls, he’s nervous and defensive, hiding his true feelings and not knowing what to say.
The most beautiful relationship in the book is with Liam, an old Irish nightwatchman who discovers Danny one night exploring his old home, which is slated for demolition. Liam becomes an unlikely mentor, an outsider who gives Danny the chance to talk about things he’d never dare to mention with his friends and family. He’s patient and non-judgmental, even when Danny finally dares to talk obliquely about his guilty secret.
As you’d expect from a tale about a teenage boy and a group of friends, there are plenty of adventures and escapades in Danny Boy. There’s the camping trip to Devon that ends with his friend Dodds being caught in a tent with the naked fiancee of the trip organiser. There are drug-fueled trips Up West, one of which ends with a night in a police cell. There are run-ins with Gasping George, disastrous dates, punch-ups at dances, etc.
The real appeal of Danny Boy, however, is in the gradual maturing of Danny and, sometimes, his friends, as they come up against the realities of adult life, some of them very harsh, and begin to make decisions based on more than just the momentary whims that ruled them as children. It’s a compelling story about a difficult, complicated summer in which many things are changing all at once. Some of it’s funny, some of it’s tragic, and as a reader, you feel it all, which I suppose is a sign of a story well told.
There are 4 comments
Well, this review has brightened up a cold and foggy morning in London, Andrew. I’m so grateful.
The book seemed a little like Christmas: coming and coming and coming … and then it was gone. Such is the way of publishing. However, what ever happens to it, your words have helped banish ever-present doubts and encouraged me to get down to what is really important – the next novel.
Thanks again for such a thoughtful and kind review.
You’re welcome, Barry! I like it when an author discovers one of my reviews and comes to comment.
I know exactly what you mean about Christmas because the publishing industry does tend to forget about a book once it’s been published for more than five minutes, but the good thing is that readers will keep discovering it in all sorts of unexpected ways for years to come. I’m still getting a trickle of PLR money from On the Holloway Road, and what I like more than the money is the idea of people still finding it in the library after so many years. I’m sure it’ll be the same with Danny Boy.
Good luck with the next one!
Thanks for this review Andrew, this looks an interesting read, I shall take a look.
Yes, I think you’d like it, Mandy! Will be interested to see what you make of the book if you do end up reading it.