My copy of Smile, Roddy Doyle’s eleventh novel (for adults), came signed by the author and dated by him the day before publication date last September, and with a personal dedication, too: a marvellously thoughtful birthday gift from my sister.
Doyle remains one of my favourite authors; I have read all his novels and A Star Called Henry continues, nearly twenty years on, not only to be a masterpiece but one of my desert island book choices. In recent years, however, his work has focused less on the novel and more on short form writing. The Guts (2013) saw a revival of the Rabbitte family, while 2006 saw a revival of Paula Spencer; 2010 saw the disappointingly rather overblown conclusion to his Last Roundup trilogy of Irish history in the 20th century given such a memorable start in A Star Called Henry. Other than these, we’ve had two collections of short stories (in 2007 and 2011) and two collections of banter-based dialogue (2012 and 2014) – light snacks and frothy coffees and witty and enjoyable enough for all that but, otherwise, there’s not been a lot new to get our teeth into in the last decade up until Smile. Indeed, somewhat half-way through this book, the (mistaken) impression I had was that Smile was, again, really two short stories struggling to get out.
Doyle himself has acknowledged that Smile is a very different book in structure and in tone than has been explored in his previous work. Of course, there are continuing threads: the boozer-inspired banter among Dublin’s working class men of a certain age; the boom and bust of the Celtic Tiger, and the associated social upheaval which Ireland has experienced since the 1980s – itself a character in many of Doyle’s stories; the casual, frequently savage violence meted out to and among young boys; and the reliability of the witness provided by the narrator. The habitual stylistic quirks in Doyle’s writing are there, too, underpinning the question marks over the reliability of the narrator. Here, however, what is different to Doyle’s previous work is that the narrator himself – Victor Forde – doesn’t himself accept that his narration of his own story is not necessarily reliable but is forced to do so by the end of the novel.
Given Doyle’s assertion that what you see is, indeed, not necessarily what you might get, any synopsis of Smile has uncertain foundations. What we do know is that Forde, a lonely chap in his mid-50s and a former journalist, is seeking to re-build his life by falling in with a new group of acquaintances in the pub. In doing so, he chances upon a mysterious character called Fitzgerald, an apparent outsider who appears to know Forde very well and who, by the end of the novel, compels him to review key events in his life at a deeper level than he had hitherto been able to do.
One of those key events – Forde being bullied at his Christian Brothers School as the result of a remark by one of the teachers – is drawn from Doyle’s own personal history (see previous link to publisher’s interview with Doyle; and also here). Apart from that single detail, the book is not in any sense autobiographical and the treatment that Forde subsequently receives did not happen to Doyle: we don’t have here, therefore, a situation similar to that affecting Alice Sebold, for example, who was unable to get out the novel she wanted to write until she had worked through certain events in her personal life.
The shocking twist on which the novel spins, which brings the two stories together and which changes the tone of the novel completely, is breathtakingly audacious and unlike anything Doyle has attempted in his work before. Not all readers will enjoy having their feet swept from under them by a novelist playing with their perceptions; and some might comment that question marks remain over the execution which mean that the plot twist doesn’t quite come off for Doyle. Even so, the confidence of the attempt has to be admired. There is much else to admire in the novel, too, in terms of the telling, precise accuracy of the observations which fly unerringly home within a shattering finale which wrings the emotions of the reader and which must count among the bravest 3,000 words of any novel anywhere. Three days later, I’m still coming to terms with it.
Ultimately, this is a novel about memory and the long-term damage which schooling can do in which, perhaps, Philip Larkin missed a nuance: it’s not your parents you have to worry about so much as your schooldays. Smile is not only Doyle’s best work in years; but, given the tautness of the tale and the compelling prose, it might indeed be his best yet.