“Part of the beauty of Borstal Boy… is the skill with which
it recaptures the contradictions that make up the ‘young
offender.’ Behan himself appears in the text as a riddle of
pride, fear, loneliness, and aggression. He is at once a
cynically knowing critic of the pieties of both Irish
nationalism and English imperialism and a homesick boy…”
– Peter Boxall, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die
This book took me longer to read than I thought it would. The beginning was interesting, but as it went on, everything seemed to be taking a long time. Some anecdotes were quite enjoyable to read, but I found myself wondering when he would finally have his trial and then when he would get to Borstal (which didn’t happen until Part 3). I think it could have kept my interest better if it had cut out some of the less interesting parts in order to pick up the pace, but perhaps that’s just me. I don’t always have a lot of patience with memoirs or nonfiction books.
I did like that this book was a memoir because it showed everything as absolutely true to life. While it didn’t talk about the IRA as much as I had hoped that it might, there’s really no way to duplicate the kind of insider point of view that Behan offers us. The reader can see what the English prisons of this time really look like from the eyes of a prisoner, and since Behan goes through three different places, from prison to an allocation center to Borstal, the reader can also compare, seeing which are strict and which are more lenient and in what ways.
One thing that can really be seen are the developing relationships between the characters, as Brendan makes friends and finds ways to keep back enemies. This book is also very good for learning slang. There is an index in the back, but I hardly ever used it, as much of it is explained by the narrator the first time a word is used and much of the rest can be easily understood from context. By the end, I was actually impressed with how much of it I had learned. In fact, I begin to think that it’s kind of weird that I know so much about 20th century English prisons now.
I would recommend that anyone who wants to read this book brush up on some Irish history beforehand, especially for the beginning, where Brendan and the police reference several historical figures and events that would have gone right over my head if it hadn’t been for my Irish Lit class. Especially understanding the IRA will help to explain the variety of attitudes towards Brendan presented by the characters upon first meeting him. Given that, I would recommend this book if you have an interest in Irish history or want an insider’s view of prison life in this time period. I probably would have found it boring if I hadn’t gone in wanting to learn something. As it was, I enjoyed it, but probably a bit less than average.
- Brendan Behan on the Easter Rising (democracyandclasstruggle.blogspot.com)
- On Writing a Review of Borstal Boy (dste9.wordpress.com)