It’s Roddy Doyle with a twist

DELV­ING INTO THE PAGES OF SMILE, THE 11TH NOVEL BY RODDY DOYLE, TEDDY JAMIESON FINDS ALL IS NOT AS IT SEEMS

Sunday Herald Life - - CONTENTS - Smile is pub­lished by Jonathan Cape, £14.99

WARN­ING. What fol­lows will con­tain a spoiler of sorts. If you want to read Roddy Doyle’s new book with­out any fore­knowl­edge (and I’d rec­om­mend that you do), come back to this later.

OK. If you’re still here, I think I need to tell you the fol­low­ing. To­wards the end of Doyle’s lat­est novel, a slim but slip­pery thing, there is a twist. I tell you this only be­cause it’s im­pos­si­ble in a re­view to judge the novel with­out that knowl­edge.

But be­fore we get there – or to the mar­gins of there; I’m not go­ing to tell you what the twist is – you will pos­si­bly not be sur­prised to learn that Smile is a novel set in Dublin in the present day and con­tains a fair amount of white mid­dle-aged Dubs, mostly male. That has been Doyle’s forte in re­cent years, be­cause, of course, he him­self is a white, mid­dle-aged Dub.

It’s a world he knows well and writes bet­ter, the world of the past-their-best, of talk­ers not do­ers, the world of men who sit around chat­ting about the things men chat about: “foot­ball, Game Of Thrones, hol­i­day plans, re­tire­ment plans, Robin Wright, craft beer, col­lege fees, Nick Cave,” as Doyle’s nar­ra­tor says at one point.

Said nar­ra­tor, Vic­tor Forde, is the novel’s mid­dle-aged fo­cus. A for­mer jour­nal­ist and

gobby renta­mouth, sep­a­rated from his wife Rachel who is an Ir­ish me­dia celebrity rather more suc­cess­ful than he is, Forde is now on his own, try­ing to find his place in a part of Dublin he left long ago. A re­turn to the neigh­bour­hood of child­hood.

Per­haps un­sur­pris­ingly then, ghosts haunt him; the ghosts of his days at school be­ing taught by the Chris­tian Broth­ers, of his mar­riage and his ca­reer.

There is one “ghost” in par­tic­u­lar, hang­ing around. Fitz­patrick, a flesh-and-blood man who wears shorts and a pink shirt and who says he knows Vic­tor, who even says his sister had a bit of a thing for Vic­tor back in the day.

The truth is Vic­tor doesn’t re­mem­ber Fitz­patrick’s sister, doesn’t re­mem­ber Fitz­patrick, doesn’t even like Fitz­patrick. But for want of com­pany he gets drawn into an un­easy needling com­pan­ion­ship, one that in turn stirs up more mem­o­ries of the past.

All of this is set against a recog­nis­ably con­tem­po­rary Dublin. Re­li­gious ed­u­ca­tion, the abor­tion de­bate, Fine Gael, Uni­ver­sity Cas­tle Dublin, Slane Cas­tle, U2, RTE, the GAA, Su­per­Valu gro­cery stores all make an ap­pear­ance. And all of this is told in Doyle’s easy, pared-down prose and de­motic di­a­logue that just sings. He re­mains the best kind of pop­ulist author; ac­ces­si­ble and am­bi­tious.

What’s new here, though, is the sense of mys­tery, a feel­ing of eerie dis­con­nect that one wouldn’t nor­mally as­so­ciate with Doyle. For a while I wasn’t even sure it was de­lib­er­ate

The sex scenes cer­tainly are though. And they are, by Doyle’s terms, fairly graphic. Reading them I couldn’t help but won­der if there wasn’t a sense of wish

ful­fil­ment about them, to be hon­est.

But, mostly, reading the first 180 pages of Smile I reck­oned that this was a novel about lone­li­ness, about the sense that we can never know any­one else and we are all iso­lated in our own heads.

For a writer who is so at­tuned to the plea­sures and ter­rors of fam­ily life this feels like new ter­ri­tory too.

And then the twist hap­pens. It doesn’t de­con­struct that sense of iso­la­tion but it makes you re­vise ev­ery­thing else in the novel (in­clud­ing the sex scenes). It re­casts ev­ery­thing that has gone be­fore and in do­ing so finds a new level of pain.

Does it work though? I’m not sure. All twists come with a sense of cheatery built in, don’t they? The reader is left puz­zling at it, wor­ry­ing away at the frayed threads, look­ing for the flaw. And here too the switch­back comes with its own black­out cur­tain. There is no lin­ger­ing after­wards. It’s shock and out.

Hav­ing read the book I found my­self try­ing to nail down what I’ve read, re­frame it in the light of new in­for­ma­tion. Does it work? No, but maybe yes. It works enough. Works enough to con­fuse you, to pos­si­bly anger you, to make you, the reader, work. It makes you want to read the book again.

Smile is Doyle’s 11th novel. It is not his best, I don’t think. And yet it has all his usual qual­i­ties while of­fer­ing us a vi­sion of a writer push­ing into new emotional and nar­ra­tive ter­ri­tory, push­ing him­self fur­ther. That’s surely some­thing to wel­come in a nov­el­ist who is now 30 years into his writ­ing life.

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