Smile by Roddy Doyle

Reviews of Roddy Doyle’s latest novel, Smile, are taking one of two approaches – focused on style and a brief reference to the plot OR spoilers and trigger warnings.

Although it’s not my usual approach, I’m going with spoilers and trigger warnings (look away if you want).

Smile is the story of Victor Forde – he’s middle-aged, alone for the first time in years, and has just moved into a new apartment. Every evening, he heads to his local pub, Donnelly’s, for a pint. At Donnelly’s he meets Eddie Fitzpatrick, a man who claims to have been at school with him, although Victor can’t recall him. Victor dislikes Fitzpatrick, particularly because he stirs up memories of being taught by the Christian Brothers.

The story switches between the present and Victor’s memories of school; his marriage to Rachel (who became a celebrity); and of his own brief media career on the radio.

So, to the spoilery/triggery bit:

Victor was sexually abused by one of the Brothers at his school and it is his repressed memories of this time, and how he deals with the trauma, that is represented by the character of Fitzpatrick. There are lots of reviews on Goodreads that discuss the ending of this book and the narrative technique that Doyle has used – hunt them down if the conclusion of Smile leaves you thinking ‘What…?’ (it is certainly one of those books that you will want to discuss with another reader).

That was the thing: it wasn’t assault. Not back then… I never thought I was witnessing anything illegal. Even being felt up by a Brother was just bad luck or bad timing.

I’ve included the spoiler so that I can say that Doyle handles these scenes sensitively and with great compassion. He does not take the easy road of simply alluding to what happened to Victor – instead, the brutal truth of his abuse and the repercussions of this trauma are plainly stated and the detail in Victor’s story – that the Head Brother carefully chose his victims – is chillingly realistic.

I’d no big brothers; no one had warned me about him. Never smile back at him. Never get ten out of ten. Never get below five – don’t give him any excuse to keep you back after the bell.

As always with Doyle, the dialogue is flawless. In particular, the scenes in Donnelly’s shine, with the banter between the men sharp and realistic.

– We don’t take it too seriously, said Harry.
– What?
– The golf.
– To avoid the disappointment, said Liam. – The same with everything. That’s what it’s all about now, isn’t is? From here on in. Avoiding disappointment.
– Will you listen to fuckin’ Aristotle.

Equally good are the classroom scenes, where Doyle captures the camaraderie and rivalries between school boys – Everyday was exhausting. Exciting and upsetting.

Overall, the dialogue is done with such ease and carefully metered emotion, you feel like you’re part of the conversation.

I’ll ask Fay in Religion tomorrow, I said. – Excuse me, Brother, are you a c*nt or a zombie?
The lads hid behind a few cars and broke their shites laughing. I was thirteen but I felt seventeen, nineteen, twenty-three.

3/5 Dialogue was first class but I felt a little tricked by the narrative structure.

I received my copy of Smile from the publisher, Random House UK, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

…it was the last time I went for pints with the lads. Two of them are dead. I miss them like I miss my father; I wish I’d known them.

As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (June 17): Belfast 11°-18° and Melbourne 8°-14°.

8 responses

  1. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer (except that it’s Winter) | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

  2. This sounds like it handles tough subject matter well. I really like Doyle so no doubt I’ll read it at some point, but only when I feel able to manage the abuse storyline. He is brilliant at capturing banter – such an ear for dialogue!

    • He handles the abuse element extraordinarily well. It’s very, very sad.

      I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts on the narrative structure – I think it will divide readers!

  3. Hi Kate, I read this book last week, and found it very sad and angry. I really felt for Victor. At first the ‘conversations’ were difficult to follow. However, once I understood what was going on, I really enjoyed the way the story was told.

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