Celtic Junction Arts Review
Smile by Roddy Doyle, a book review
By Lily O'Donnell
Roddy Doyle’s novel “Smile” tells the story of Victor Forde, a Dublin-based middle-aged, newly divorced man. Victor is living alone after the divorce from his longtime wife Rachel. The story begins with his attempt to redeem his past mistakes, reflect on his life, and find new pathways to happiness. He flocks every night to his new local pub, Donnelly’s, for a pint and to build a routine and assimilate into society in a way he avoided during his past relationship. Through his regular trips to the pub he meets Eddie, a mysterious man from his past in primary school who appears to know Victor well, but Victor has no clue who he is. Through Eddie, Victor is forced to reflect on his childhood, his young adult years, his past relationship and his family to make sense of who Eddie is, and through this realize who he himself – Victor – really is. The story ends us with a massive surprise making the story more of a psychological thriller on trauma, regret, and memory. It leads the reader to question the role of fantasy in our own conceptualizations and storytelling of ourselves. How much of what we think of ourselves is accurate and how much is a fantastical day-dream of who we hope and want to be?
The story is told through the voice of Victor, who we quickly realize is a very depressed, self-loathing and anxious man. He talks of his past relationship, the process of falling in love and striving for success in his younger years very beautifully and eloquently, but with a sense of disconnection. His stories are laced in melancholy and regret of how he never really reached the success and greatness he was craving. His retelling is marred with misery and hatred for himself. His ex-wife, Rachel, appears to be the only real beacon of light in this recounting of his life. She gave him hope, life and an energy that his pathetic view of himself wouldn’t let him accept without her.
Victor discusses traumatic stories from his experience with Catholic brothers in primary school. He discusses sexual assault as well as dealing with his Father’s passing. The stories of abuse, trauma, and grief are left with an intentional lack of detail. They lack much emotion and often abruptly stop when the content gets too heavy. They are also juxtaposed next to stories of hilarity and lightness. Funny stories of ridiculousness and rebellion by him as a young student. They seem to overshadow and brighten the overall story of his past, while not fully discussing or dealing with the past. It seems so conversational, the way people often choose to discuss their past and reflect on. There is an emphasized focus on the positive, the powerful memories and a troubling lack of discussion on the traumatic. An ability for Victor to process these moments and an ability for us as a reader to be able to fully understand and be capable of reading the much darker sides of Victor’s memory. We are made to feel as incompetent of reading and conceptualizing the much harder parts of Victor’s memory as he is in retelling them. He gives us just enough to enjoy him, his story and his narration. The shadows of what he doesn’t tell us remain alive within the story, however. Equally haunting us through the narrative, as they haunt him.
“Smile” seems to capture the psyche in a brilliant and powerful way. His self-loathing and miserable voice seems to imitate the darkest part of our own egos and self-talk. Through Victor’s constant struggle to seem normal to his new group of drinking buddies and in dealing with his regret and unhappiness in the past; we can see a major part of ourselves. The characters Roddy Doyle constructs, particularly in the obnoxious, bloated and overly confident Eddie and the successful, charming, locally famous, ex-wife Rachel are perfect. He builds these people in a way that we all know and recognize. They are undeniably, wonderfully Dublin characters. The voice of these characters and the scenes he creates are scenes we feel we’ve lived ourselves. The feelings of shyness and awkwardness from the perspective of Victor brings us back to times of new situations, attempting to grow and experience new things. The characters Roddy Doyles builds as well as the perspective we are given through Victor are extremely relatable. Victor echoes the voices of everyone’s darkest demons and creates a false, imagined perception of reality. He represents the most anxious retellings of our most embarrassing moments in a way that we can relate to Victor as well as hate him for being so self-absorbed and trapped within himself.
Overall, Roddy Doyle’s “Smile” will make you laugh and cringe. We feel sad, confused and frustrated with our narrator, Victor. The ending brings a massive twist that leads to a self-reflection on the effects of trauma and the importance of how we tell our stories. It makes us ponder how regret shapes us and how we can relate to our pasts. Childhood and self confidence are heavy themes throughout the novel and the tendency to shroud the darker parts of ourselves through humor is echoed through the novel. We hear the deep thoughts of an emotional and repressed man and find the worst and unspoken parts of ourselves. Victor represents much of the human experience and the way we choose to view ourselves, our future and our pasts.
Lily O’Donnell is a Winnipeg, Manitoba-based university student. Her studies relate to reviewing the rhetorical impact of music and literature to create community and cultural ideas of identity. She is originally from St. Paul, Minnesota and grew up with strong roots in Dublin, Ireland.