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Love: Roddy Doyle’s masterful study in all that goes unsaid

Book review: Main characters are like Vladimir and Estragon made worse for drink

Author: Roddy Doyle
ISBN-13: 978-1787332270
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Guideline Price: £18.99

Remember how it went? You’d go into town on a cold Saturday afternoon, quickly tire of whatever jobs you’d assigned yourself, and sidle into a pub, one of the old ones, and maybe sit at the bar – catching your own eye in the mirror behind the bottles and the barman. Doors would swing open bringing in the cold and then shoppers with their bags. You might get too comfortable and stay until after dark. Then there might be another bar, maybe a party.

To step into the world of Roddy Doyle’s Love is to step into a remembrance of things (temporarily) past; two old friends spending a day traipsing from Dublin pub to Dublin pub, sharing secrets and airing grievances.

Davy and Joe go back a long way. Davy, the narrator, lives in England now and only comes home occasionally to visit his ailing father. But as schoolboys Davy and Joe would blast records in Davy’s living room, playing them “so loud we could put our hands on the window glass and feel the song we were hearing”.

Then, when they were old enough, they hit the pubs of Dublin city, hoping “to live up, somehow, to the music we loved, the books we read … sit in the pubs that Behan and Flann O’Brien had sat in, find the women who’d see, who’d understand, who’d hold us, who’d do things to us. Let us in. Let us soar.” But now they are nearly 60 and they are wondering if they ever soared. Both are embroiled in a crisis of sorts. Joe has left his wife for another woman, Jess, “the woman of our dreams” who they both met in a pub called George’s, the haunt of their youth.


Davy’s crisis played out differently. He is devoted to his whip-smart wife Faye but there was a period of hospitalisation for exhaustion, a sadness about his relationship with his failing father. Whereas Joe had placed a bomb under his old life and left himself estranged from his family, Davy, overcome by a certain dread, was quietly imploding.

In Neary’s, in the Palace Bar, in the Sheds in Clontarf, the men spend the day listening to each other’s stories, weaving between conflict and compatibility. Joe is a hijacker of memories and conversation. He babbles on about his new love endlessly, his sadness for his wife. Davy thinks Joe has succumbed to “spunk eyes”, a term they used when they were young for clouded infatuation, but Joe surprises him: he and Jess have never had sex.

He struggles to explain why exactly he left his wife, “the day to day life smothered the ache, the sense that there’s something missing.” His explanations all falter, “the words are letting me down.”

Davy finds comfort in the solidity of his marriage and denigrates Joe’s decisions even as Joe attempts to explain that it was not a “mid-life thing. He felt like he was living his real life.” The two men find that their memories of the past, and of Jess, clash. A rivalry surfaces. Davy fights to assert himself as something other than a sidekick in Joe’s stories. Over and over, he makes a silent vow to leave Joe’s company and never see him again before gathering himself, thinking about all “the things we say and don’t say”. He goes back to Joe. He wants more of his story.

And just like old friends, no profound statement is left unmocked; self-mythologising is barely tolerated

Like a Vladimir and Estragon made worse for drink, the conversation moves in circles, the men stopping short or changing topic, seemingly never saying what they really mean. There is an inadequacy to language, their intent falling between two stools. Each derides the others relationship choices, unsettled somehow when faced with the path they have not chosen.

Defences rise and fall as they move from pub to pub, drinking themselves sober and then drunk again. They talk themselves into anger and argument and then out of it. And just like old friends, no profound statement is left unmocked; self-mythologising is barely tolerated. Through their relationship with each other, they have come to a certain appreciation of themselves.

Davy tells us that before he met his wife, Joe was where he found happiness. On the weekends they spent together as young men, “joy rushed in and drowned us.” But now, through all this conversation, Davy is quiet about what is really troubling him. We know that his father is failing – and as the drinking continues, Davy keeps checking his phone.

All evening long the men keep trying to make their way back to George’s but get side-tracked by pit stops and piss-stops. George’s, in the end, is like something you grapple for in a dream but can’t quite reach. They can’t go back.

As with so much of Doyle’s work, Love is heavy on dialogue. So when the narrative shifts away from the often-fraught conversation between Davy and Joe and into Davy’s past, it can feel like a reprieve. Davy recalls how his mother’s death destroyed his father. “I was twelve when she died, and the radiators went cold.”

His father became a shadow figure in a silent house. The young Davy dreams his father might find someone and he’ll wake to find a woman in the kitchen. Then when he was hospitalised for exhaustion, when time became “a series of unjoined moments”, we hear how Faye minded him, wanting to “lift him out of death”. In these scenes, the novel shines golden.

Throughout, Doyle imbues the ordinary moment with a certain grace

In the devastating final pages, all the hard drinking of the night gives way to an extraordinary tenderness. Davy’s father is dying and it is a nurse who will call time. And the love in the quiet of a candlelit hospice room goes beyond anything that can ever be said about it.

Throughout, Doyle imbues the ordinary moment with a certain grace; moving exchanges with taxi drivers, a homeless couple sharing a paperback, a barman standing looking at his phone in the passage between the bar and the lounge. At the very least, anyone who is longing for the quiet comfort of “a clean well-lighted place” will find some consolation here; pints are placed under Guinness taps then on the towel to settle, “the tan darkening to black and the arrival of the collar”.

Love is an extraordinary book in which very little happens. But just as music is said to lie in the silence between the notes, it is a masterful study in all that goes unsaid.