he by John Connolly

In his author’s note to he, a novel based on the life of Stan Laurel, John Connolly explains his desire to contemplate the underlying emotions behind this half of one of the greatest comedy duos of all time. The result is a stunning biographical novel.

Told in short chapters, alternating between the past and present, he follows the gradual rise of Stan Laurel from a performer at his father’s musical hall to Charlie Chaplin’s understudy, films and then finally his famous pairing with ‘Babe’ (Oliver Hardy). Running alongside is the never-ending presence of Laurel’s financial, artistic and marital struggles. But he is much more than a retelling of Laurel’s life. Impeccably researched, it provides a detailed context of the performance and film industries, exploring in particular the rise of film from silent shorts to spoken features. No one’s influence is felt here more than Chaplin’s: his talent and success haunt Laurel throughout. The great achievement of he is its masterful use of style and structure. The shifts in time highlight what Laurel has lost: both in his beloved comedy partner Babe and in the craft of comedy itself. Repetition and dry wit are used with great effect. The growing despair of Laurel’s attorney Ben Shipman is a highlight of the second half.

Laurel and Hardy are set for a renaissance, with Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly soon to appear in the film Stan and Ollie. Fans will appreciate what Connolly has accomplished – and those with a previously passing interest will find themselves hungry for more.

Amanda Rayner is the returns officer at Readings Carlton.