Irish novelist Roddy Doyle’s Smile, his 11th novel, opens with middle-aged Victor Forde moving back to his hometown. Victor occupies a small apartment and walks down early each night to a local pub for a pint. One evening he runs into an old school chum, Eddie Fitzpatrick. The two get talking and with a Proustian touch Victor’s life, one he seems to have lost, returns over pints as their conversations illicit memories that flood onto the page. Smile unfolds as a dramatic monologue of Victor’s reminiscence coming out in Spartan and natural language that is a testament to Doyle’s talent.
The work is a departure from what we have come to expect from Doyle, who is best known for his Barrytown Trilogy books (like The Commitments, The Snapper, and The Van) that all mixed an Irish humor and middle-class sensibility to depict the lives of ordinary people. Smile uses the same skills and sensibility, but in a more streamlined and intentional work that might be the best of Doyle’s already outstanding career.
As Smile ramps up it is hard to stop reading and the book, at a little more than 200 pages, is easily consumed in a long sitting or two. The book is full of tension, reading like a thriller. Doyle’s mastery makes it so that Victor’s revelations are delivered to him and us simultaneously and to great effect.
The book hinges around some smart and important twists, that truly shows how the weight of trauma can manifest itself over time and the devastating effect it can have. To read Smile from page one is to know something is up and not right. We like Victor, but know he’s up to something or that all is not right.
A smart and important work by an underrated writer, Smile is not an easy read, and as we get closer and closer to Victor it becomes harder and harder. The final pages here offer less in the way catharsis, sacrificing satisfaction for a devastating truth that lingers long after the book is finished. An unforgettable read, but with that said, this is not an easy book to digest.
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