Rewind back to the spring of 2018 and celebrated Irish author, Roddy Doyle, is being interviewed by Stephanie Merritt as the celebrated Hay Festival enters its 30th year. The topic is Doyle’s latest offering: a harrowing story of childhood trauma, secrets, and self-revelation. The date of Doyle’s interview is significant: the 25th of May 2018, the day of the historic Irish abortion referendum: the people of Ireland voted by a margin of 66.4% to repeal the eighth. For Doyle, the victory was not just political, but deeply personal – as a young teacher, he often landed himself in trouble when leafleting to repeal the eighth. Ireland, for Doyle, is not just his homeland, but the physical and political tapestry onto which many of his best-selling novels are woven.
In Smile one of Ireland’s most troubling associations is cast into the spotlight: the sexual abuse scandals that have, and continue, to plague the Catholic church. Yet Doyle does not attack the Catholic church as a whole, despite his criticism of institutionalised religion. In an interview with Vanity Fair in 2017, he said:
There is great comfort in the notion of the few bad apples. There are a few bad Christians, there are a few bad priests who, if you like, made the whole institution seem rotten, and it’s not, it’s fine.
Though Doyle’s novel does possess what he calls an ‘autobiographical spark.’ As a child, he was a student at the authoritarian Christian Brothers’ school. A school where discipline and sickening violence were at the top of the menu. The novel’s title, Smile, was conceived from an encounter Doyle had as a teenager with one of the Brothers: ‘Roddy Doyle, I can never resist your smile’, he said. Inevitably, ceaseless taunting and torment shadowed Doyle through much of his secondary school life. It was only much later in life that Doyle found out that he had got off lightly – over a discussion with old school friends, he discovered that a significant number of his friends had been sexually abused or assaulted whilst attending the Christian Brothers’ School. And so, the premise of Smile was born.
That’s not to say that the sexual abuse scandal took Doyle by surprise. In his conversation with Merritt he recalled how certain boys would be asked to ‘stay behind’ with the Christian brothers after school. Eventually, the other boys insisted on staying behind collectively to prevent the abuse from happening – safety in numbers proving key to preventing the abuse or at least making it more difficult for the Brothers to continue undetected.
Yet Smile is not just a novel about abuse, in the same way, that Two Pints isn’t a novel that’s just about two Irish blokes in a pub. It could be described as a meditation on memory and its unreliable, labyrinth-like nature. Smile portrays memory as not just a photograph, capturing a moment in time, but as an image with fuzzy, indistinct edges, where figures loom in the background, contorted and unfamiliar. When we first meet the newly single Victor Forde, he seems quite satisfied with what middle-age has handed him. He lives in a tiny apartment in Dublin and frequents his local, Donelly’s pub, where he sinks a pint or two whilst absorbed in his book. It seems like an attempt to bridge the gap between the solitary and the social, by doing an activity that involves a little of both.
Victor feeds us snippets. As a youngster, he was a wannabe music journalist, who enjoyed moderate success. He recalls how he met his wife (now ex)- Rachel, who had an ambition of her own: to become a top celebrity chef and television personality. The middle of the novel provides a departure from much of the chaos and confusion, as the storyline gives way to romance. We watch as Victor and Rachel bond over pints of Guinness, have sex and fall in love. For now, Victor has got the girl, but the reader already has the foreknowledge to know that this is not to last. Yet the Victor and Rachel of the past muddle through their poverty and pain for what they want – Victor, a career as a novelist, Rachel, her burgeoning catering business ‘Heels on Wheels.’ As a reader we can’t see what could possibly have gone so wrong – they struggle from day-to-day, but always hand-in-hand.
Fast-forward back to the present, and Victor’s solitary existence doesn’t last long. A man in shorts and a pink shirt, who calls himself Ed Fitzpatrick, interrupts Victor’s reveries one night in the pub. Fitzpatrick claims that he went to the same Christian Brothers’ school as Victor and vividly remembers the taunting Victor encountered: ‘“What was the name of the brother that used to fancy you? … Would he fancy us now, Victor?’” Fitzpatrick seems uncouth and provocative, but ultimately harmless. But not for Victor. For Victor, the sight of Fitzpatrick triggers an irrational hatred: ‘“I wanted to hit him. I wanted to kill him.”’ For Victor, Fitzpatrick embodies the uncanny: that face in the crowd that you can’t quite place, the nightmare that threatens to engulf the quotidian nature of life. Victor has no recollection of the man who claims they were at school together; whose sister apparently had a ‘thing’ for Victor. But isn’t that just the nature of memory? It’s slippery, half-formed and prone to rusting with age. Yet Victor also finds himself drawn to Fitzpatrick in a way that he can’t explain: he is repelled and intrigued in equal measure.
The shocking conclusion of Smile forces the reader to completely re-evaluate everything that has come before. We’ve had clues along the way – Victor reveals towards the end of the novel that Rachel was not his wife, after all, but that he found it easier to refer to her as that. In one intense scene, in the middle of their blissful relationship, he awakens in the middle of the night and tells her everything: ‘I exploded. I’ve nothing to describe it. No picture or sound. I burst apart.’
This ‘bursting apart’ is Victor’s revelation of the sexual abuse he experienced during his time at the Christian Brothers’ school. Victor’s mask is starting to slip – and this is just the beginning. The climax of Smile is sure to divide readers – but since when is that a bad thing? Literature that denies us a tidy ending – think JB Priestly’s An Inspector Calls or Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange – has often been praised for its verisimilitude and experimental nature. Doyle provides the reader with a twist that is surreal, outrageous, perhaps even dissatisfying, yet it also, oddly, feels like the only conclusion Doyle could possibly have written. With Smile, love it or hate it, Roddy Doyle is entering new territory and pushing the boundaries of his own genre. If memory is a tapestry, in Smile, Doyle proves himself a supreme craftsman.