Review: Smile by Roddy Doyle

9781911214762.jpgSmile is Roddy Doyle at his very best: a mesmerising, bleak novel about institutional abuse in Ireland, which is as penetrating and devastating as it is masterfully sumptuous thanks to its shocking final twist. Smile is a triumph. Doyle has delivered an extraordinary work of fiction.

Alone for the first time in years after splitting from his TV celebrity wife, Victor Forde drops into Donnelly’s pub for a pint one evening, an establishment close to his new (and very humble) abode; a place where, he thinks, he might become a regular. It’s here he encounters a man named Fitzpatrick, who Victor can’t remember, but goes along with the man’s assertion they were school pals. Fitzpatrick seems to know everything about Victor, including personal details that he is adamant he’s shared with nobody else, but desperate for friendship, Victor is willing to go along. When he returns to his flat, to the uncompleted manuscript that haunts him, he reflects on the life that has brought him here. The thing is: Victor isn’t a wholly reliable narrator.

The falsehoods start small. Victor tells the barman he put a fiver on Costa Rica in the Word Cup, then informs the reader that he in fact hasn’t. Well, we’ve all done that, right? A little white lie; what’s the harm? When he queries Fitzpatrick on whether he has read his book, he immediately informs us that there is no book. It remains, as it has for many years, unwritten. Then the inconsistencies and the omissions become increasingly prevalent: Victor references a sister and a grownup son, but neither are elaborated on, and feel more like caricatures than characters, lacking any depth or colour. And there’s the matter of Victor’s wife, too. Ah, beautiful, irresistible, loved-by-all Rachel, with a sexual appetite that’ll make readers blush, who for some reason,  unknown to us, or Victor, or his newfound friends at Donnelly’s, loved only Victor; always Victor, forever Victor, this woman, who seems like a fantasy, like every man’s dream, who could’ve had any man she wanted. Why Victor?

Smile unfolds non-chronologically, which infuses the novel with a powerful surrealism. We bounce between episodes, the centrepiece of which is when one of the teachers at the Christian Brothers school Victor attended molests him under the guise of teaching him a wrestling move. Deftly explicated, which makes it all the more heart-wrenching, this was the event that instigated the corrosion; that effectively ended Victor’s chance at a normal, happy life. Because however much of the story he weaves about his life and its apparent successes is true, it’s obvious he is a very damaged man. We just don’t quite realise the severity of it until the final pages, when Doyle turns the whole novel on its head. Some readers might see the twist early, but it’s executed effectively nonetheless, and is a searing reminder of how potent the author’s fiction can be.

Written with precision and thoughtfulness, Smile underscores the repercussions of institutional abuse. It doesn’t do so without zealous overstatement or with detailed depictions of the horror experienced. It simply portrays the stunted life of a lost and broken man, and makes you wonder: is there any hope for those touched by unspeakable evil? Roddy Doyle seems to think not.

ISBN: 9781911214762
ISBN-10: 1911214764
Format: Paperback (216mm x 135mm x 16mm)
Pages: 224
Imprint: Jonathan Cape Ltd
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publish Date: 7-Sep-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

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