Life Without Children: Stories
- By Roddy Doyle
- 192 pp.
- Reviewed by Mariko Hewer
- March 21, 2022
This collection of pandemic tales casts the lockdown in a new light.
Roddy Doyle’s spare, fast-paced Life Without Children is the first book I’ve read that’s situated in the pandemic era — a risky approach, considering the crisis is ongoing. Yet Doyle’s stories ably provide insight into the early days of covid-19 lockdowns in Ireland, showing how the virus affected both society at large and individual relationships.
It is a time of muted insanity for us all, as the author makes clear. In the title tale, Alan, an Irish man visiting England just as lockdown hits, idly considers walking away from his current life forever. “Once, years ago, when the children were children,” he remembers it was at a party, “someone had asked Alan if he had any — children. And he’d said No.”
He’d spent the evening feeling guilty and off-balance, “out for the night with no witnesses but still up past his neck in four childhoods.” If he had chosen to cap the evening by having sex with one of the partygoers who believed his lie:
“…he’d have shouting something as he was coming…He’d have groaned it: I’ve four kids. He’d have yelped their names in order of age, from the youngest up. Then Lizzie — she’ll be doing her Junior Cert next year!”
Yet now that his children are grown and, for two decades, Alan has felt like a man without kids, he thinks he could do it again, this time for real: throw his phone in a dumpster, leave his clothes and other necessities in his hotel room, and disappear into a strange country.
Despite the story’s relative lack of plot, Doyle’s depiction of a middle-aged man struggling to find his place in life is poignant and recognizable, and the backdrop of the pandemic serves as a grim reminder that everything is indeed changing. Whether or not Alan returns home ultimately seems less important than how he feels about his decision — yet even that, in the way of real life, is left somewhat ambiguous.
Another story, “Masks,” is about a man chafing at the edges of his pandemic-imposed confinement. “Ripped from his life, he walks. He hates it but he does it…He’s walked right through the year. He’s added and subtracted the permitted kilometres, 2K to 5K to 20K, and back to 5K.”
The piece is so masterfully wrought that it produced a visceral reaction in me, albeit a negative one. On his daily walk, the man regards “the masks. Dozens — hundreds of them. They’re damp and lethal on the concrete, like the leaves.” In the next moment, “He bends and picks one up. It’s wet. The white straps for the ears are still intact. He puts it on.” Not content to stop there, “He keeps adding the masks [from the ground]. His bending is effortless. He adds layer to layer, mask on top of mask.”
Despite being repulsed by the idea of wearing strangers’ used masks, I found I identified with this lonely, frustrated person struggling not only under the weight of the pandemic but also with its attendant life changes. Perhaps we have not all felt an urge to cater to this specific whim, but many of us have felt unmoored by the uncertainty of the past two years and more likely to act or speak uncharacteristically. Doyle conveys this quiet desperation perfectly.
As mentioned, it’s refreshing to read a book set outside the U.S. during covid-19; it helps reinforce and reveal the global aspect of the pandemic. Occasionally, Doyle’s writing slips so heavily into Irish slang that it might be a slight barrier for the unsuspecting reader, though most confusion can be clarified with a quick Google search or a re-read.
Overall, Roddy Doyle’s Life Without Children offers a compassionate, compelling portrait of ordinary people living through an extraordinary new reality.
Mariko Hewer is a freelance editor and writer. She is passionate about good books, good food, and good company. Find her occasional insights at @hapahaiku.