Review: Life Without Children by Roddy Doyle

The stories in “Life Without Children” are textbook Roddy Doyle, exploring familiar themes, but primsed through the pandemic. I’ve always enjoyed his mastery of evocating the stillness and banality of everyday life, perforated by ordinary incidents that afflict us all at some point. His take on one of the greatest discountenances of our time was a tantalising prospect.

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Review: Love by Roddy Doyle

9781787332287I’m a latecomer to Roddy Doyle, but was enraptured by Smile (2017) — a bleak novel about the legacy of institutional abuse in Ireland — and Charlie Savage (2019) — a collection of a year’s worth of hilarious, self-effacing and often poignant anecdotes, first published in the Irish Independent, about a middle-aged Dubliner reconciling with his own mortality. But Love is mysteriously expunged of the guffaw-inducing humour of the latter, or the shocking revelations of the former. And without either element, his latest is disappointingly bland, and by Doyle’s lofty standards, oddly prosaic.

Love shines the spotlight on two men in their late middle ages, who walk into a pub to drink and talk and reminisce. Several decades and hundreds of miles have separated Davy and Joe, but tonight they’re united, their conversation becoming increasingly drunken and sloppy, and pockmarked with revelations, the most significant (we think, until the novel’s latter stages) that Joe recently left his wife for Jessica, a woman he first met in one of the pubs he and Davy frequented in their youth.

Doyle’s the master of dialogue, and that’s showcased here, as he demonstrates the exacting nature of discourse between two emotionally stunted men, who are desperate to unveil their feelings, but burdened by the expectations of toxic masculinity. There are machinations on family and fatherhood, love and friendship, as they talk around their emotions; hide sentiment behind crude banter. Some of it is poignant, but much of it is exhausting. For a good hundred pages we are treading water, waiting for the novel to get to its point. I can’t help feeling this is a novel begging for a leaner page count.

ISBN: 9781787332287
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 336
Imprint: Jonathan Cape Ltd
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publish Date: 14-May-2020
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Charlie Savage by Roddy Doyle

9781787331181Roddy Doyle’s Charlie Savage collects a whole year’s worth of hilarious, self-effacing and often poignant anecdotes, first published in the Irish Independent, about a middle-aged Dubliner reconciling with his own mortality, and the irrefutable reality of having more past than future. Or, as Charlie’s daughter puts it, “in the prime of your decline.”

Although Charlie Savage touches on the ‘cruelty’ of ageing,  it’s ultimately a celebration of life; how joy can be plucked from the tiniest, unlikeliest moments; how laughter can be ignited in even the worst circumstances; and how the circle of life is something to be celebrated. We gradually lose the vitality of youth, but what we gain is something grander; transcendental, almost.

Doyle’s writing is as sharp, earnest and disarming as ever. He’ll have you guffawing with laughter on one page, then wring your heart on another. The episodic format of Charlie Savage means it can be read in instalments, but if you’re like me, you’ll devour it in very few, and then struggle to fill the void that forms, with Charlie and his family and friends now missing from your life.

ISBN: 9781787331181
Format: Hardback
Pages: 208
Imprint: Jonathan Cape Ltd
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publish Date: 14-Mar-2019
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Smile by Roddy Doyle

9781911214762.jpgRoddy Doyle’s Smile is 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