Roddy Doyle’s latest novel, Smile, opens with an interesting note from the publisher. It proclaims that ‘in 2017, Viking Penguin will mark twenty-five years of publishing Roddy Doyle. The book you hold in your hands is, in some ways, like nothing he has ever written before.’ This dramatic claim is a valid warning for a novel that definitely takes Doyle’s talents in a different direction.
Synopsis: Just moved in to a new apartment, alone for the first time in years, Victor Forde goes every evening to Donnelly’s pub for a pint, a slow one.
One evening his drink is interrupted. A man in shorts and pink shirt brings over his pint and sits down. He seems to know Victor’s name and to remember him from school. Says his name is Fitzpatrick.
Victor dislikes him on sight, dislikes too the memories that Fitzpatrick stirs up of five years being taught by the Christian Brothers.
He prompts other memories too – of Rachel, his beautiful wife who became a celebrity, and of Victor’s own small claim to fame, as the man who says the unsayable on the radio.
But it’s the memories of school, and of one particular Brother, that he cannot control and which eventually threaten to destroy his sanity.
Whilst in the middle of this novel, several people happened to ask me what I was reading. Each time I seemed to respond that, ‘I’m reading a Roddy Doyle novel. It’s good but I don’t quite know where it’s going.‘ Usually, I am happy to experience this because there is nothing worse than a predictable novel. However, when I found myself near the very end of this book and expressing the same level of confusion, the alarm bells began to ring.
First I’ll deal with the positives. The author writes a story that is easy to relate to as we witness a man grow up and deal with a newfound sense of loneliness. It is easy to empathise with the main protagonist as he tries to fit into new social circles. These scenes featuring middle aged men enjoying midweek pints are a strength of Roddy Doyle’s writing. Previous Doyle novels Two Pints and Two More Pints are built solely around dialogue of this nature. In fact, I completely envy Roddy Doyle’s mastery of the vernacular dialogue scene. He regularly puts snippets of these scenes online for fun with one featuring a discussion about Ronaldo being my personal favourite.
Other highlights of the novel are tales of a burgeoning romance and constant references to places and people of cultural significance in Ireland. They say that writers can only write about what they know so some of these passages hold extra resonance given the circumstance’s of the author’s personal life.
Now for the big problem which I have hinted at before. There comes a time in every novel where it is all meant to come together or leave an acceptable level of mystery. Either way, like a good meal the reader wants something substantial to chew on and take time to digest.
When I got to the end of Smile I felt like I was cheated. I think this is because I found it hard to sympathise with the main character. The interesting issue with this novel is that the author probably plays on the readers opinions on blame, recovery and victim mentalities. Maybe my opinion of this novel reflects my opinions on those concepts. Either way, the novel that requires an immediate second reading upon finishing is a tricky premise to pull of successfully. Unfortunately, this was not a novel that left me smiling at the end. 😦
Would I recommend this book to a friend?
The big question! I have massive respect for Mr. Doyle and everything that he has achieved. I have massive respect for the chance that both he and his publisher have taken with this novel. BUT he has many more novels better than this in his repertoire. This is one best left for the Roddy Doyle superfans to fight over!