Roddy Doyle is a master of capturing the gulf between what people say to one another in intimate relationships, and what they want to say. His specialism over the last decade or so has been a particular generation of working-class Dublin man, fluent in pub banter but hobbled – often destructively so – when it comes to expressing deeper feelings. Doyle writes dialogue so natural and confident in its rhythms and silences that his novels can read like play scripts; his most recent, Love, consisted almost entirely of the back-and-forth between two old friends talking over the course of one night’s pub crawl. In this story collection he explores those familiar themes – unspoken resentments, unlived lives – through the lens of the pandemic, and the ways in which it has magnified the fissures and fault lines in ordinary lives.
Many of the stories pinpoint a moment when the threat of imminent catastrophe forces a crisis that has been simmering for a long time. In Box Sets a man throws a mug at the wall during an argument with his wife. When he returns home after storming out and meeting with an accident, he convinces himself the damage was not as bad as he’d feared: “It hadn’t really smashed. It was broken, but only in two halves, along an old crack.” Ignoring the evidence that his wife has gone, he stubbornly tells himself that continuity will save them. “They’d be fine; it wouldn’t be too bad. The future measured in box sets.”
Marriage is the principal arena in which these inner conflicts play out. In the title story, Alan, a father of four, is away in Newcastle just as lockdown regulations begin to bite back home in Ireland, while England blithely carries on as normal. On the walk from his hotel to a pub, past gaggles of stag and hen parties, Alan considers the possibility of throwing away his passport and phone and not returning: “He can walk up this hill to the life he never had, or walk back down to the life he doesn’t want.” Doyle is brilliant at pinpointing tiny details loaded with significance: the source of Alan’s malaise is not the “boredom and terror” of his home life, but a throwaway comment made by an old man at his father’s funeral: “You’re not half the man your father was. I’ll leave it at that.”
As the collection goes on, the influence of the pandemic becomes ever more explicit. Nurse is a brief snapshot of a story, capturing the in-between moments when a young healthcare worker returns to her empty flat and allows herself to reflect on the loss of two patients that day. In Masks, a lonely man finds his shortcomings exposed by the new reality in a way that will chime with many readers: “The lockdown has ripped away the padding. There’s no schedule, or job, no commute. There’s nothing saving him.”
Pandemic fiction is already becoming its own sub-genre, and there will no doubt be much more to come. But 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 by Roddy Doyle is published by Cape (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply