Love by Roddy Doyle review – boozy old pals find a twist in the tale

Hephzibah Anderson
·2 min read
<span>Photograph: mimmopellicola.com/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: mimmopellicola.com/Getty Images

Alcohol slooshes through Roddy Doyle’s writing, acting as siren, muse and retro marker of masculinity. All the same, the pint tally in his latest novel is such that you expect to find its pages sodden with the black stuff. They are, in a way.

Boldly titled Love, it’s structured around a night-long Dublin pub crawl whose participants, Joe and Davy, are pushing 60. They spent formative time together in their early 20s, also propping up bars, figuring out how to become the men they admired while yearning for women out of their league.

Or so it seemed, for now Joe has a confession: he’s left his wife for one of those long-ago shared crushes, a cellist named Jessica.

Joe has stayed local, but Davy married and moved to England. Drawn back by his ailing father, he is unmoored by Joe’s revelation, not least because he’s hiding a secret of his own. The narrative relies on Doyle’s characteristic banter – unattributed, sometimes comic, often lushly expletive. As Davy confides: “I loved speaking like a Dubliner. It felt like physical exercise.” Don’t expect linearity, though: this is a tale constantly interrupted by flashbacks, forever getting knocked off course by old tensions and fresh ambivalence. And still the rounds keep coming.

Related: Roddy Doyle: my work is fuelled by music, mitching and mugs of green tea

Is Joe simply a man caught cheating, trying to make of it something mystical, inevitable? It’s a question that tests memory and the ownership of stories, the reader’s patience, too, on occasion.

“There is a reason why men don’t talk about their feelings,” Davy proclaims. “The words aren’t really there.” Words do indeed fail them frequently, yet amid their sozzled swordplay are sentences that casually slay with their mute concision, as when Davy recalls his mother’s untimely passing and his father’s inability to cope. “I was 12 when she died and the radiators went cold.”

The finale comes as a sobering surprise, opening wide a novel that has contrived to feel at once capacious and claustrophobic. After the guilt and envy stirred up by the booze comes a great generosity of feeling, a celebration of love in all its forms, not least between two friends old enough to know better.

Love by Roddy Doyle is published by Jonathan Cape (£18.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply