Book review: Smile, by Roddy Doyle

Roddy Doyle sends the narrative spinning in unexpected directions in this gripping study of a man revisiting the abuse of his schooldays and its impact on his adult life

Roddy Doyle: the novel which seemed a conversation piece becomes sinister. Picture: Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images
Roddy Doyle: the novel which seemed a conversation piece becomes sinister. Picture: Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images

Victor Forde is in his fifties, and living in a shabby apartment block. He has, it seems, been famous both as the husband of a TV celebrity and as a radio star who was ready to say the unthinkable and who was known to be writing a book on what’s wrong with Ireland. Now, separated from Rachel, the unwritten book is still remembered. Meanwhile, he has fixed on Donnelly’s as his local, going there most nights to read a book as he sinks a couple of pints. It’s a nice, drab Dublin opening.

One evening he is approached by a man in a pink shirt and baggy shorts who says his name is Fitzpatrick and claims to have been at school with him. He is coarse and vulgar and Victor has no memory of him. He has, however, memories of their school. It was run by the Christian Brothers, and it will be a dull reader who does not realise that the matter of sexual and physical abuse lies at the heart of the novel. Victor remembers the French teacher, Brother Murphy, an ugly man who gave the impression of wanting to be French, and how one day, while they were clamouring to be excused homework, the Brother said “Victor Forde, I can never resist your smile”. It bought him years of bullying – “Murphy knows you’re a queer.” But there is worse than this, worse than Murphy, things lodged deep in the memory.

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There is tenderness in Victor’s life, tenderness for and from his mother. Then there is Rachel. She is glamorous and a free spirit and the sex is wonderful. Like Victor she is a rebel against the constraints and prohibitions of the Republic dominated by the Catholic Church; they are for family planning – contraception and the right of abortion. They are in tune with the new Ireland that will enjoy an economic miracle and social liberation. But Victor will never write his book, and will remain tormented by guilt, while Rachel, it seems, will leave him behind. Before she does so, however, he will have spoken out one morning on the radio, describing the abuse he suffered.

Abuse may leave the victim feeling guilty, and this is Victor’s position: guilty and a failure. He makes a new acquaintance in Donnelly’s and Doyle gives us their bantering talk at length. It’s tedious but companionable; their language is crude, unimaginative, barren. They talk much about women and do so offensively or boastfully, to conceal their inability to meet women on equal terms. And all the time Fitzpatrick lurks in the shadows, a bitter, unsuccessful figure, who does not attempt to disguise his inability to have made anything worthwhile of his life. There’s a sourness to him and a sense of potential violence. He is a bore and an embarrassment and Victor still cannot remember him at school.

So the great part of the novel is a finely observed and recorded slice of unsatisfactory life: a portrait of the artist now recalling schooldays, now recognising himself to be a burnt-out case, with the smile that Brother Murphy could never resist long ago faded away. Then, in an astonishing last chapter, when Victor and Fitzpatrick seem to come drunkenly and violently together, Doyle turns the novel on its head, clarifying Victor’s memories of school and calling everything we thought we had learned about him into question. This ending is a daring tour-de-force. The novel which has seemed a conversation piece becomes sinister. The social novel turns into an exploration of the dark and frightening shadows which Victor, the man who posed as a truth-teller, has tried to deny. Doyle lifts the curtain and reveals a fragmented personality. Victor has to see himself and the figure whom he knows as Fitzpatrick but doesn’t remember in a different light.

It is as if we had been taken from urban twentieth century Ireland into questions of duality that seem more Scottish, questions explored by James Hogg in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Stevenson – in The Master of Ballantrae rather than Jekyll and Hyde. Doyle touches on the impurity of evil, the imposition of responsibility on the innocent.

Smile is published by Jonathan Cape, £14.99