Smile â€“ classic Roddy Doyle, but withÂ a shocking twist â€“ opens with theÂ 54-year-old narrator, Victor, aloneÂ in a Dublin pub. He doesnâ€™t shareÂ a home with Rachel, the woman he calls his wife, but is vague about why. He feels out of place. When he says, â€œGood man;Â thanks very muchâ€ to the guy pulling his pint, he immediately tells us â€œthe words felt great and a bit forbidden. I hadnâ€™t earned the right to slip into the rhythmÂ of a middle-aged Dub.â€
Why not? Unease grows when a former classmate who might be calledÂ Eddie Fitzpatrick â€“ at least thatâ€™sÂ how Victor thinks he remembersÂ him â€“ accosts him in the pub, raising uncomfortable memoriesÂ of the Christian Brothers school they went to. Theyâ€™re the same age and their fathers died in theÂ same month; people in the bar takeÂ Fitzpatrick for Victorâ€™s brother orÂ his cousin.
Who this man is and what he wants are questions that nag away as the novel rewinds leisurely through the previous 40 years of Victorâ€™s life. Schooldays are vicious, terrifying and strangely thrilling. When a Brother tells the 14-year-old Victor in French class that he can never resist his smile,Â the repercussions from his peers are instant. Another Brother molests him â€“ it was just once, Victor says â€“ under the guise of teaching him a wrestling move.
The progression through these episodes is not chronological. ChaptersÂ flit around in time. So we alsoÂ know that Victor is a failed writer. The first in his family to go to university, he dropped out, seduced by his ability to get sarcastic music reviews into print, later becoming a talkshow controversialist who never got around to collecting his opinions into a book.
Doyleâ€™s recreation of 1970s and 1980s Dublin is engaging in itself, evenÂ as youâ€™re wondering what went wrong in Victorâ€™s life. Added to suspense over Fitzpatrick is the question of what happened with Rachel, an entrepreneur caterer from the posh part of town who, by the timeÂ of Smileâ€™s Â present, is the star turn in Irelandâ€™s answer to Dragonsâ€™ Den.
Rachel, whose altruistic sexuality saves Victor from his tortured virginity,Â has the air of a fantasy woman. But the more you read Smile, the more you wonder. Stray references to a sister and a grownup son arenâ€™t elaborated on: a hint that thereâ€™s more â€“ or perhaps lessÂ â€“ to Victorâ€™s story than he lets on. And from the start we know Victor isnâ€™t always honest, tellingÂ the barman he put a fiver on Costa Rica in the World Cup but then straight away informing us he hasnâ€™t. â€œSo you havenâ€™t read my book,â€ he saysÂ to Fitzpatrick, telling us in the same breath that he hasnâ€™t actually written one.
Doyle does the fun stuff so well that we suppress doubts about these white lies. But then comes the devastating and comfortless finale, in which Doyle conjures up a mind-bending narrative swerve to jolt the novel out ofÂ everydayÂ realism. The gamble comesÂ off, as Doyle embodies Victorâ€™s buried trauma to make clear what he has lost. The moment is horrible, as itÂ perhaps should be, but unlike otherÂ recent novels about sexual abuseÂ â€“Â Hanya Yanagiharaâ€™s A Little Life or Gabriel Tallentâ€™s My Absolute Darling â€“ Doyle achieves his effects without resorting to explicit scenes of violence.
Doyle has made clear in interviews that the passage in which a Brother remarks on his fondness for Victorâ€™s smile was based on his own experience.Â Thereâ€™s a sense of fine margins haunting this book, an awareness of how easily a lifeâ€™s potential can be snuffed out. By the end, the bookâ€™s title takes on the air of aÂ taunt, as weâ€™re left with an unutterably bleak picture of institutional abuse, entirely without hope.
â€¢ Smile by Roddy Doyle is published by Jonathan Cape (Â£14.99). To order a copy for Â£11.24 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over Â£10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of Â£1.99