... a quietly devastating collection of short stories that brilliantly portrays the pervasive sense of hopelessness that immobilised us during the dog days of Covid ... Lest he be accused of focusing too much on men and their sense of victimhood, the countervailing magnificence of his women is worth noting. Part of Doyle’s genius resides in a kind of bathetic amusement at the follies of his male characters and always it’s the stoical good sense of women that saves the day ... Another of his great strengths is the ability to drop in those little epiphanies that resolve the tension and conflict of a story in a single significant moment ... Doyle breaks our free fall into despair by emphasising the redemptive power of humour, love and the kindness of strangers.
... what feels most familiar is the sense of absence that fills every story, of voices and bodies and people who are missed ... 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 ... There are laughs as well, of course, many of them prompted by a sort of gravedigger’s humour ... There are happy endings, too ... 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, after all. Even in a pandemic.
The book is small-boned and quiet, lacking some of the life force of Doyle’s other writing, but its atmosphere of desolation has its own kind of dark power, and the resilient wit of the Irish is everywhere ... The prose proceeds without fanfare, as is Doyle’s way, but is infused with unexpressed or diverted emotion that lends it an accumulated charge ... My favorite of the lot is The Charger, which is also the longest and the most developed. (A few of the other stories have a slightly dashed-off quality and can veer into cutesy moments or slightly pasted-on endings ... Admittedly, there is something thin about Life Without Children, a certain degree of repetitive emotions and scenarios — almost a quality of having been written at great speed before time runs out on all of us. But that very thinness seems suited in some way to the unimaginable period of isolation and confinement Doyle is writing about, a period to which he imparts a sense of poignancy and glimpses of happiness, of grief and loss and small moments of connection that make it less surreal and more a part of the daily vicissitudes through which we must make our way, or perish.
Doyle’s brilliance probably shines brightest in life with children — which may give added poignancy to these lives from which children are missing, lost or launched. But Doyle’s other extravagant gift, a way with speech, does have its moments here, often in significant exchanges recalled but more generally in the conversational knack of the narration — whether it’s a character telling his own story (or, in one case, two characters telling alternating, and sometimes conflicting, versions) or a third-person narrator approximating a character’s point of view.
Roddy Doyle’s new collection, Life Without Children, provides evidence that the short story, with its contained scope and drive, is the best way to convey how intensely individuals have struggled with COVID-19 and its global ramifications ... something more universal in his style, its claustrophobic force and mastery of close-quarters dialogue, works especially well in a volume all about the lockdown ... Very few modern fiction writers can do so much with so little ... Doyle...is the right writer for this job because he can take a worldwide event and distill it into a delicious fruit drink or a pint of properly pulled stout—if not a world in a glass then at least a full experience. Like the privation that fueled his earlier plots, global disaster doesn’t necessarily bring out our best selves, or even different ones. But it reveals a lot, and it makes for a tasty batch of stories.
... [a] sharp new collection ... These stories aren't all winners ... Generally, though, this book is wry and poignant ... Readers who prefer books that help them temporarily forget about COVID won't find much to like here. But in Life Without Children, the pandemic is just a supporting player. The stars are Doyle's palpably authentic characters.
Doyle writes dialogue so natural and confident in its rhythms and silences that his novels can read like play scripts ... there is an immediacy to the stories in Life Without Children, an emotional charge that comes with writing in real time, and an optimism too. In the stripping away of everyday anxieties, the virus reveals what matters most, those qualities that are always at the heart of Doyle’s fiction: love and connection, however clumsily expressed. The two final stories, 'Worms' and 'The Five Lamps,' both feature loved ones finding each other after a long estrangement as a result of the lockdown. If there’s an element of sentimentality in that, it is balanced by Doyle’s irreverent humour, and reflects our experience of living through a crisis. More than anything, these stories are about the vital importance of communicating with one another before it’s too late.
Life Without Children...draws strength from its subject matter and embodies all its challenges. It is masterful, funny, moving, tragic, familiar, and a little too familiar. The things that make Doyle’s writing great—the volubility tempered by an almost musical control, the pitch-perfect dialogue, the emotional richness, the gruff humour—are all there ... But reading Life Without Children cover to cover, loving much of it, I could have done without lines like 'You weren’t supposed to go further than two kilometres from your home' or 'There was a man going on about washing the hands' in the final story. Conjuring a background static of Covid updates and soundbites might in itself be a powerful, accurate effect. But should a whole wave of authors replicate this pervasiveness, or our fatigue with the pandemic, readers may grow even more tired of the way we live now.
The coincidences in the stories can feel overly engineered; it is perhaps inevitable when the canvas is so small and so constrained. Fiction, though of course concerned with interiority, thrives on incident and friction. The nature of the enclosed setting necessitates repetitive structures: like those bicycle wheels. We are in limbo, endlessly expecting. Yet whether the Covid crisis becomes an important, fertile ground for fiction remains to be seen.
Doyle faces COVID head-on. These 10 simmering, inward-looking tales, set in Ireland in the midst of lockdown, turn the roiling psychic turmoil induced by the pandemic into a timely and yet timeless form of domestic drama ... Amid the slow disintegration and abrupt cessation of old lives, there is always the sustaining black humor that is ever at the heart of Doyle’s fiction.
... the various and frequently unexpected effects of the Covid-19 lockdown on Irish society are depicted with irresistible irreverence. From the first story to the last, this instantly engaging chronicle of life during the pandemic lockdown in Ireland resonates ... Humor of every shade, from near-slapstick to keen satire, prevents the collection’s moments of emotional insight from congealing into sentimentality. And Dublin itself, the broad streets and the even broader range of its natives’ speech—so pungent and quick—has rarely been so deftly captured. A moving and quick-witted portrait of Dublin lives under lockdown.
... [an] accomplished collection ... A master of dialogue—whether strained, deceptive, or free-flowing—Doyle has a keen eye for the interconnectedness and the criticality of communication, which makes these stories shimmer. Doyle’s raw portrayal of living and loving under lockdown has a deep resonance.