Roddy Doyle

Jonathan Cape, £14.99

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Review by Teddy Jamieson

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.