Roddy Doyle's eleventh novel, now in paperback, is a sober and perceptive study of middle aged angst, as Victor Forde, a sad and lonely 54-year-old, rebuilds his life after a painful marriage break-up.
The disappointment is huge and palpable, and the story of his life to this point makes uncomfortable reading.
As a child, Victor attended the local Christian Brothers School. Five years in St Martin’s led to 'an erection for four of them, even during Irish.' Hilariously, the young Victor sat through Peig and thought of ‘legs and nipples and the bird on Benny Hill and my friend’s mothers and sisters. And the women in the Sunday World...' These school days antics, while entertaining, were also 'exhausting, and upsetting,' with corporal punishment meted out on a casual and regular basis - 'the Brothers never minded violence.' The savagery of school is relentless, and so very sad. There is pathos in his mother’s excitement. "How was school?" she asks, having never attended herself.
Being felt up by one of the brothers is casually referred to as 'bad luck or bad timing', and Brother Murphy, a particularly violent man comments ominously: 'Victor Forde, I can never resist your smile'. This familiarity is inappropriate and frightening, and the prose weighs heavy with the terror of assault and abuse. There are dire repercussions from this unwarranted attention, and they are long-lasting.
In post-Tiger Ireland, Victor attempts a fresh start, but the links to the past prove strong. He has a good memory, or thinks he does, and when he meets the pink-shirted Fitzpatrick in Donnelly’s, the local pub, he does not like him. Yet there is something in him that 'he recognises and welcomes', and a sort of friendship ensues. The lads in the local are flirting with 'the oul’ Milfs, the bit of madness, the bit of experience' and the camaraderie is a welcome relief, giving Victor life outside his dreary apartment.
In the space of 214 pages, Roddy Doyle once again expertly captures the Irish psyche and zeitgeist, the issues that occupy us, 'everything that’s wrong about this country' - abortion, football, bankers, builders, Garth Books concerts, the weather...
Listen: Roddy Doyle talks Smile with Ryan Tubridy
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However, beyond the mirth and social commentary, it’s a novel about what might have been, a life lost, destroyed by another, and how we go on. Everyone deserves a second chance, everyone deserves love. It’s a tale of how we perceive each other, and how we sell ourselves to the world, when deep down we’re dying.
Infused with Roddy Doyle’s trademark wit and insightful observations, Smile is a revealing and painful exploration of one man’s life, of guilt and regret. Sure, there are laughs along the way, but this is a deeply poignant and thoughtful book. Ultimately Victor Forde is unmasked, and his story will stay with you.
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