Business Times of Edmond, Oklahoma January 2020 - Page 29

BOOK REVIEW BY CAMERON BRAKE | BEST OF BOOKS Smile by Roddy Doyle Penguin Books; Reprint edition (October 16, 2018) Paperback: 224 Pages In Review: Smile A s a general rule, people tend to remember the beginning and ending of a book better than the middle. This is particularly true of fiction. This month, I would like to introduce you to one of the most staggering, jaw-dropping, memorable endings I have ever read. Roddy Doyle’s latest novel, “Smile,” is a short book, but one that will stay with you long after you read it. You will never forget the shocking conclusion. I guarantee it. First, a warning: I will not give away the particulars of this book’s finale, but let me say now that this is a book that deals with some incredibly difficult subject matter. Sexual abuse by Catholic clergy is central to both the plot and the shocking conclusion. There are some truly difficult scenes, here. Make no mistake, this is a heavy book. Doyle knows this, and therefore, for 90% of the book he does not directly deal with such a dark and brutal topic. Instead, we are introduced to Victor Forde. We meet Victor as he is settling into his new life as a middle-aged, recently divorced man. Victor is in dire need of a new daily routine, and a big part of that includes selecting a new local pub to spend his evenings. Doyle is supremely gifted at introducing Irish slang, customs, and ways of thinking without spending too much time on explanations. You pick up the precise meaning as you go along. Once Victor selects a new pub and begins to ingratiate himself with a few of the other regulars he almost believes he has found a way to work through his recent divorce and really figure out his new place in the world. This belief is short lived. Enter Fitzpatrick. A loud, bawdy, disruptive man, Fitzpatrick reveals to Victor that they went to school together. Although Victor has trouble remembering him, he does know that he does not like him. There is something oddly off-putting about him that Victor is unable to pin down. Doyle does a masterful job of building tension between the two as the story progresses without ever revealing what is driving the tension. It’s just there, this pervasive something that causes Victor to simultaneously hate and become close with Fitzpatrick. While Victor learns how to navigate this new life, we are taken through a series of flashbacks. These memories focus either on Victor’s early education at the local Catholic School, run by The Christian Brothers. These scenes, much like Victor’s interactions with Fitzpatrick are rife with a sort of dread that has no name. Part of the anxiety is driven in large part by every character’s inability to name the thing that is causing so much distress. This is as far as Doyle’s criticism of the Church goes. While the abuse scandal is a part of the book, Doyle spends much more time examining the silence that surrounded the abuse for so long. Other flashbacks introduce us to Victor’s ex-wife, a successful TV celebrity. These scenes also make clear that Victor’s career as a music journalist, which began with so much promise never really went anywhere. Victor spends his time in the pub either thinking privately or telling Fitzpatrick about these memories. Whichever the case, Victor is unable to face his past without the assistance of alcohol. Throughout the story, this unseen tension grows and grows until, finally, we reach the final 15 pages of the book. There are some endings that surprise. Then there are those that aim to wrap everything up neatly. The ending of “Smile” is neither of these. It is something else entirely. When I finished the book I sat it on the shelf, sat down, turned out the lights, and remained there for at least a half hour. I could do nothing else. It is one of the strongest, most visceral reactions I have ever had to a piece of fiction. It is a gut-punch that just keeps on punching. This is not hyperbole. I promise you, you will have a powerful reaction to the final scene of Roddy Doyle’s darkly profound novel. I believe firmly that everyone should read this once. It says something everyone needs to hear. You can read this book in one sitting, but do not let its size fool you. This is a novel that will put you on the floor. Good luck. REVIEWER CAMERON BRAKE works at Best of Books, Edmond’s independently owned bookstore at 1313 E. Danforth in the Kickingbird Square Shopping Center.  January 2020 | The Business Times 29