HE by John Connolly

He is a fictionalised account of the life and and work of Stan Laurel, the creative half of the world-famous comedy duo Laurel & Hardy. It’s written in a very distinctive style, which does take some getting used to. However I think the style is an important aspect of the book, as it reminds us that this isn’t a biography as such, it’s a novel, or if you prefer a reimagining of Laurel’s life. Connolly does a superb job of recreating the entertainment world of the last century, guiding us from the dusty stages of the vaudeville scene, through the tentative step into pictures, eventually reaching an era in which cinema is seemingly replaced by television. The seediness and reality of early 20th century life is revealed. There is no nostalgic rose-tinted glasses here, it depicts the early days as brutally honest as possible, detailing various scandals and affairs and deaths that occurred. There are a great number of chapters, some of which are just a paragraph or two long, so it’s a very fast read. At times the book returns to Laurel’s final days, spent in retirement at his Oceana apartment in Santa Monica, where the memories and ghosts of his past linger. The regrets, the frustrations of his many failed relationships, the drive that propelled him from just an understudy of Chaplin into a comedy great in his own right, they all hover just out of sight.

By the novel’s real power, its beating heart, is in the way it portrays the relationship between Stan Laurel and the man who was the other half of the duo, Oliver ‘Babe’ Hardy. There’s a mutual respect between them both, very tender, which edges towards heartbreak as they grow old and the inevitable happens. The regret, in particular, from both men, on the poor decisions they made in life, is incredibly moving and affecting. Certain other characters – Ben Shipman, Laurel’s solicitor, and the various women he had relationships with – are also vividly painted. It’s a remarkable book and one I have no hesitation in recommending.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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