Irish novelist Roddy Doyle has always had a lot of literary tools in his belt, but the one he's most known for is his sense of humor. His first three novels, The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van, were all laugh-out-loud funny, and even his most serious novel, The Woman Who Walked into Doors, which dealt with alcoholism and spousal abuse, had its (darkly) humorous moments.
Fans of Doyle might be expecting more of the same with his latest novel — it's called Smile, after all, and although its plot involves a broken relationship, Doyle has managed to mine humor out of similar situations before. But there are no laughs in Smile; the few jokes it has aren't designed to be funny. It's a shocking book, at times almost unbearable to read, and it's by far the most serious of Doyle's career. It also proves that there may not be anything that the novelist can't do.
Smile follows Victor Forde, a 54-year-old Irish man with an undistinguished career as a journalist and a long-term relationship that has recently dissolved. He's moved from the home he used to share with his famous wife into a lonely apartment, and spends his nights haunting a local pub. One evening, he meets a former secondary school classmate named Fitzpatrick; Victor has no memory of him, and isn't happy to make his acquaintance: "I didn't like him. I knew that, immediately."
When the resolutely uncharming Fitzpatrick starts teasing Victor about their days at a Christian Brothers school ("What was the name of the Brother that used to fancy you?"), it opens a floodgate of unhappy memories. One of the first is a comment that a Brother made in class: "Victor Forde, I can never resist your smile." It's quickly followed by the memory of another, more serious incident that's been gnawing at Victor for decades.
Much of Smile is told in flashback, with Victor detailing the physical abuse students underwent at their Catholic school. "I never thought I was witnessing anything illegal," Victor muses. "Even being felt up by a Brother was just bad luck or bad timing." He remembers, bitterly, being taunted by classmates who noticed the brother's interest in Victor: "I was the Queer for forty minutes a day three times a week, and for an hour and twenty minutes on Fridays, right through the first year."
Victor also reveals the story of his relationship with Rachel, an entrepreneur-turned-television personality, whom he met while working as a music critic and frequent radio guest known for his left-wing provocations ("Now and again I said something shocking. I stirred it up. There was an honesty to it. I usually meant what I said. It made me hated, and never quite loved"). Present-day Victor is stoic, but clearly still hurting from the end of their relationship.
Smile is a uniquely difficult book to discuss; its power depends upon Doyle's ability to shock the reader with an escalating series of revelations. These culminate in a twist ending that's almost physically painful to read — the reader is forced to reconsider every sentence that's come before; the effect is dizzying and distressing.
Too often, plot twists in novels are unearned, the result of writers who have gotten in over their heads and grasped at whatever deus ex machina came to their minds first. This is not the case with Smile — Doyle isn't in love with his own cleverness; the novel ends where it does because it has to.
Doyle handles one of the most sensitive possible topics with remarkable compassion, but doesn't shy away from detailing the brutality of child abuse — while he refuses to let the reader look away, there's nothing exploitative in Smile. His writing is flawless; while much of the novel is told in staccato dialogue, he's still gifted at crafting meticulous and beautiful sentences, like one in which Victor remembers his school days: "I was so bored, so heavy with the physical weight of it, I could have cried; I could have stopped breathing. At the same time, I was often terrified and I laughed so much I went blind."
Smile is a novel that's as original as it is brutal, and as painful as it is necessary. Doyle asks us not just to consider the ravages of post-traumatic stress, but to feel them, or as closely as we can, anyway. It's his bravest novel yet; it's also, by far, his best.