Fiction – Kindle edition; Jonathan Cape; 224 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
If I had to choose a favourite book for 2017, I’m pretty sure it would be this one. Roddy Doyle’s Smile is a welcome return to form by the master of bittersweet black comedy, dialogue and drama.
It’s one of those novels you begin, thinking it’s about one thing — a middle-aged man picking up the pieces of his life after his marriage breaks down — only to discover by the denouement that it is something else entirely, something more emotionally powerful and disturbing, something that makes you want to turn back to the first page to read it all over again.
I read this one in the space of a weekend, but its dramatic effect lasted long after I’d reached the final page. I’ve read most of Doyle’s back catalogue, but even this one surpasses the sweet sadness of my favourite, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.
A kind of home-coming
When the book opens we meet 54-year-old Victor Forde. He has just moved into a new “Eastern European style apartment block” in the suburb by the sea where he grew up. It’s 40 years since he’s lived here and he doesn’t really know anyone. He is so starved of human company he’s taken to going to his local pub, Donnelly’s, for a pint every night.
I had to force myself to do it at first, like going to the gym or to mass. I’d go home — home! — cook something, eat it, then walk down the straight line to the pub. For one slow pint. I’d bring a book or my iPad with me.
He’s quite introverted, but does his best to befriend the bar staff while keeping out of everyone else’s way. One evening, face buried in his iPad (“I’d been looking at my wife’s Facebook page”), he hears his name being called and then a strangely dressed man approaches him, claiming they went to school together. Victor can’t remember the man; he can’t even remember his name, he just knows he doesn’t like him — “I knew that immediately”.
The book charts Victor’s friendship with Eddie, whose old stories about school and girls and sex prompt Victor to remember the troubled five years he spent being taught by the Christian Brothers (one of whom took a particular shine to him).
This, in turn, stirs up other memories for Victor: how he escaped his working class roots by marrying an attractive woman, Rachel, who became a much celebrated TV chef and successful business woman; how he found his own (minor) fame and fortune as a music critic turned radio pundit; and how their life together was full of passion and lots of good times until it all came crumbling apart at the seams.
But as Victor’s narrative swings seamlessly between the past and the present, between his school days and his happy marriage, between his current life living alone to the increasingly sinister behaviour of Eddie whom he can’t seem to escape, there’s the very real feeling that something isn’t quite right, that Victor’s life is about to properly unravel.
Vivid characters, vibrant dialogue
As ever with a Roddy Doyle novel, the plot moves along chiefly through dialogue. It’s punchy and vibrant and full of Dublin vernacular. His characters are richly drawn, believable and vivid. And all the scenes — whether it be in the pub, in the class room, or in the kitchen at home — are so beautifully observed that there’s a filmic quality to the entire story.
But it’s the careful plotting, the nuanced details, the mixture of dark subjects and light humour, and all the things that Doyle doesn’t say that make Smile such a profoundly moving, occasionally disturbing and important read.
The twist at the end will only make you reassess everything that comes before, for this is a deceptive story, where nothing is as quite as it seems…