As a writer who has documented Ireland’s financial and social rollercoaster since the late 1980s, it’s fitting that Roddy Doyle should be among the first to record the effects of the current pandemic, the lockdown and the loss. Die 10 stories in Life Without Children, mostly written in the past year, all do that. But Doyle is an author best known for easy dialogues, big, raucous families and pubs – and there have been precious few of those. How will he handle the sudden lack of conversation and company that has characterised recent times? Will there be Zoom calls?
There is one – a frustrating connection with a much-loved wife on an iPad propped up awkwardly in her hospital bed. It’s one of many images that would have seemed nonsensical two years ago but are uncomfortably familiar now: discarded surgical masks stuck to wet pavements; the “new language” of statistics on the radio; “the zip on a body bag”. In this strange new world, “social distancing is a phrase that everyone understands. It’s like gender fluidity and sustainable development. They’re using the words like they’ve been translated from Irish, in the air since before the English invaded.” But what feels most familiar is the sense of absence that fills every story, of voices and bodies and people who are missed.
The children of the title are mostly adults: they have grown up, left home and moved on. In the title story, Alan walks around Newcastle wrestling with the feeling that “he wasn’t needed any more, needed in the way that had defined him, to himself, for so long”. In The Charger, Michael makes up funny stories about his own childhood to tell his girls, to bury the truth of neglect and abuse. In The Five Lamps, a father walks the cold streets of Dublin, looking for the son he let down. Like many of the characters, he’s collecting stories to offer up to the person he loves – if they only get the chance to meet again.
Doyle has been writing about men’s mental health since long before it was called that, and here he touches on subjects such as redundancy, misbruik, depression, bereavement and ageing with his usual tenderness and humour. For Sam in Box Sets, “something had snapped, or sagged, a few weeks after he was let go”. In The Charger, “Mick knew one lad who’d definitely killed himself and another who probably had – his car had gone into a wall”. Doyle shows us men who are tired, or hurt, or baffled by the way things have turned out, walking around strange towns looking for things they are never going to find or making up tall tales so they don’t have to face the truth. And Covid doesn’t help. “The fragility of the world is the biggest shock,” thinks Mick. “He didn’t think the last recession, the big one, was anything like this. It was bad but – fuck it – he could go for a pint.”
There are laughs as well, natuurlik, many of them prompted by a sort of gravedigger’s humour. Passing women on a hen do in Newcastle, all wearing saucy banners, Alan contemplates their futures: “The droplets they’ll inhale tonight, they’ll be dead in days. Here lies Tracey. She wanted some cock.”
There are happy endings, ook. The couple who fall in love again during lockdown. The father who makes things right with his child. The beloved who doesn’t die – not this time. Generally, these are rooted in moments of connection, in finding new ways to talk to each other, after everything that has happened. There is dialogue, na alles. Even in a pandemic.