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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Review of SMILE by Roddy Doyle (New Release)

4 Stars
This is a very difficult book to review without ruining it for others, but I will try my best.

Victor Forde is a middle-aged, recently divorced man who has returned to the neighbourhood of Dublin where he grew up.  He starts going to a nearby pub where he encounters a man named Eddie Fitzpatrick.  Though Victor has no clear memory of him, Eddie remembers Victor from secondary school; in fact, it is surprising how much Eddie knows about Victor:  “He’d know – he knew – more than I’d want known.  He’d know facts and lies.”   

Victor has an ambiguous relationship with Eddie.  He admits, “I didn’t like him.  I really didn’t like him.  He made me nervous.  And he bored me.  I hated it when he stood too close, or when he sat back, right in front of me, and scratched his crotch or walloped his stomach.  And I couldn’t remember him.  He’d been in school with me; I didn’t doubt that.”  One of the reasons he dislikes Eddie is that he stirs up memories of his difficult high school years.  Nonetheless, Victor continues to return to the pub:  “The point was, I knew we’d be meeting again and I’d done nothing to avoid it.”

Victor also reminisces about his life after graduation, especially his meeting Rachel Carey who became his wife.  A very beautiful woman, she became a celebrity as a television chef while Victor gained some notoriety as a provocateur on radio talk shows.  For many years he has been writing a book about “the rot that was at the heart of Ireland.”

There is a great deal of mystery throughout the novel.  One of the major questions is why Victor keeps going back to the pub knowing that Eddie may very well be there.  There is an aura of menace around Eddie; his is a threatening presence so is it their shared experiences, like both having lost their fathers at a young age, that are the draw?  Others at the bar even mistake them for brothers or cousins.  Victor tries to explain the attraction (“But there was something about him – an expression, a rhythm – that I recognised and welcomed”), but it isn’t convincing.  Why is it that Eddie remembers so much about Victor but Victor’s memories are much less clear?  Why does Eddie wear the same clothes every time he comes to the pub?

There are other unanswered questions as well.  Victor’s attraction to Rachel is understandable, but the reader, like one of Victor’s acquaintances, wonders “What did she see in you?”  It is easy to see that Rachel was good for Victor; he says, “She saved me and, later, she carried me.  Her assertiveness . . . her willingness to cry, the way she took sex, took and gave – I can see now that it saved me.  It stunned me and made me.”  The reason for the marriage break-up is also not clarified; the only indication of a problem is Victor’s wanting to hear his wife explain about her day:  I’ll listen this time.”  And then there’s a son who is mentioned only occasionally?

The characterization of Victor is wonderful.  He is not a likeable person at the beginning.  He admits that he was envious of others; as a young man, he wrote music reviews and ruined careers with his scathing reviews:  “I didn’t hate [the bands].  I envied them, and that was far worse.  They could do it, and I couldn’t.  It was the start of my career, and I tore into them.”  He admits that “I was being a prick, but it gave me power.”  He also describes himself as being rigid:  “I was inflexible – still am.  I loosened a bit, for [Rachel], but it was always a fight.  My place was mine; hers was hers.  I like order.”   And he acknowledges, “I was just angry – and vain.”  But slowly Victor gets the reader’s sympathy as we learn about his life in school.  He describes himself as a bit of a misfit as a teenager so I found myself wishing that as an adult he would get what he wanted from his evenings at the local pub:  “companionship, the ease of it, the acceptance.”

And then there’s the ending!   It forces the reader to reconsider everything he/she has just read.  Some may think the ending is too shocking and unforeshadowed, but that is not true.  I couldn’t resist re-reading the book and found numerous clues I had missed on first reading.  Some clues are obvious but others are exceedingly subtle.  A second reading is really necessary to fully appreciate Doyle’s accomplishment.  The ending is discomfiting but crucial in developing the novel’s theme. 

Those who enjoy Doyle’s style – the quick dialogue, the humour, the sense of place – will not be disappointed.  I had not read anything by Doyle since Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, but I’m ever so glad I read this book.  I definitely recommend it.

Note:  I received an eARC of the book from the publisher via NetGalley.