I haven't done one of these in such a long time. I'm not even going to call it a book review. A better title might be "Why Elisha Loved This," or maybe "Envy-Lit."
Smile by Roddy Doyle is a brave book about the life-long effects of childhood, sexual trauma. Victor is a middle-aged man living in Dublin. As a boy, he was sexually abused by a grade school teacher, an Irish Christian Brother. The story is incredibly sad and horribly familiar but in Doyle's hands, the issue seems new, tangible.
Victor has recently separated from the love of his life, Rachel and spends most of his time reminiscing about her. At a pub one night he runs into a man, Fitzgerald who claims to have gone to grade school with him. He is overweight, pathetic, and wears the same dirty clothes all the time but Victor hangs out with him because he feels sorry for him.
Victor's ex-wife was a gorgeous and successful entrepreneur. He suffered from depression was an unsuccessful journalist, trying to write a book that he can never finish. Because of one article he writes, he is invited onto a radio show where he confesses that he was molested by his school teachers. For some reason, Victor makes light of it, as if was simply part of growing up. He even expresses affection for the Christian Brothers. He softens the memory of what happens.
SPOILER BIT: (skip the next two paragraphs)
One night, Fitzgerald asks why Victor lied on the radio because he wasn't just molested but raped repeatedly by the Christian Brother. Part of Victor knows that Fitzgerald is right; he has threads of those memories and there is proof in the state of Victor's life: his emotional and sexual intimacy problems, his depression, his failed marriage. Fitzgerald keeps saying that the two of them are the same person. Victor is just like Fitzgerald, bitter and alone and pathetic.
Doyle's uses the of the structure of the book as a metaphor for Victor's narrative. By the end of the book, I start doubting what I know about Victor and I went back through the novel to see if Fitzgerald and Victor are actually the same character. The story itself is like Victor's mind, it is selective, leaving out important details so the reader can't believe anything. Memory is fickle and malleable. This is how childhood trauma works: a child remembers only what they can handle. Things are forgotten or left out unintentionally so the story they tell themselves is more palatable. So caught up in the love story with Rachel, I didn't even suspect he could be lying. Doyle makes you go back and follow the thread, note the details and find the truth.
SPOILER BIT ENDS:
This book is beautiful, especially as Victor describes falling in love with Rachel. My favourite paragraph is as he describes a tender moment after sex when Rachel makes him a fancy dinner.
I was eating a thing called couscous and there were no peas or spuds on the plate, or meat. I was doing this as I sat beside a naked woman. There was a mug of wine on the floor beside me. I felt French. I felt American. I felt like a writer, living the writer's life. I felt handsome. I felt cruel and good, adult and giddy. I felt sophisticated, and I didn't. I felt that this was mine. My life had started. My real life had started. (R. Doyle, Smile page 101)
Doyle's been touted as the master of dialogue. It's true that his dialogue is always spot on, but it's the trick here that gets me. His internal dialogue always reads like something dynamic. It's as if Doyle's characters are always on the verge of understanding something and the introspection hasn't an ounce of what writers call "show don't tell." Doyle tells exactly what Victor is feeling inside and yet these bits are so vivid, unravelling right in the moment like it's part of the external dialogue. They speak out to the universe as if it's something to engage in. I love that!