LIFE WITHOUT CHILDREN by Roddy Doyle (Cape £14.99, 192 pp)


by Roddy Doyle (Cape £14.99, 192 pp)

Life in lockdown poses any number of existential crises for the mostly miserable middle-aged men who find themselves floundering in their Irish homes in Roddy Doyle’s new collection.

Written in his trademark vernacular, where, usually, expansive emotions are implied in the gaps between the words spoken, here the dialogue feels more closed in; there’s a sense of claustrophobia as the characters’ worlds become smaller and the threat of Covid looms ever larger.

The pubs are shut, offices are closed, travel restrictions abound and the characters are stuck in reluctant routines, watching TV, as helpless rage boils over (Box Sets), grief simmers to the surface (The Funeral), a sudden happy reconnection happens in a long marriage (Worms), and a tough man becomes shockingly aware of ‘the fragility of the world’ (The Charger).

But the most moving story is Nurse, which is beautiful in its brevity. It recounts the thoughts of a nurse as she relives her gruelling working day, the moment she zipped a beloved patient into a body bag and her return to an empty house to phone her dad because ‘He’ll make her laugh, and she’ll cry. He’ll listen and he’ll tell her that he loves her.’


by Penelope Lively (Fig Tree £20, 336 pp)

An elegant efficiency is the hallmark of a Penelope Lively story. For the most part there is nothing strange or startling (with a couple of glancing exceptions) in these 26 enjoyable tales which span a 40-year writing career; instead there’s an air of quiet economy as her characters undergo a slow shift of perspective, a moment of emotional revelation or a reassessment of a world view.

The collection opens with Metamorphosis, Or The Elephant’s Foot and sweeps through the life of Harriet Mayfield who is ‘exceptionally good at everything except sewing’, and who defies the expectations of her age to become a successful author.

Each stage in her zeitgeisty progress is linked with a less-lucky creature that has undergone a different kind of transformation — an elephant into a umbrella stand, a pearl oyster into a button, a whale into a parasol.

Elsewhere, a young woman discovers that the elderly lady in her care was once a spy (Licence To Kill) and a philanderer is confronted with some uncomfortable home truths (The First Wife).

Meanwhile, at a funeral, the family and friends of artist Martha share their memories of her, painfully aware that ‘she was one thing to this person and quite another to that’ (Songs Of Praise).

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