Comedy is soul

The Commitments
by Roddy Doyle

This was another book club read and I was excited when I was told it had been chosen. It promises a lot – great author, raucous humour, snapshot of an interesting time and place – and I definitely got the humour but I’m sad to say that I wasn’t bowled over on the whole.

I think that was the general feeling of everyone in book club. It’s definitely funny – we all had a favourite joke to recite – and it’s stylistically interesting, but it didn’t stun anyone or inspire deep thoughts.

In brief, it’s the story of a soul band in a working-class suburb of 1980s Dublin, a band which is formed at the start of the book and falls apart by the end. Most of the characters have either never played an instrument before or are amateurs at best and it’s unclear if they ever become good, but they certainly enjoy a brief spell of success. And that’s roughly it. There’s no dark undercurrent, no distracting sub-plots, there’s just the band.

The book is almost all dialogue, written in dialect, which is occasionally confusing as a non-Dubliner but it adds a lot to the characters to really hear how they speak. The songs are also written as dialogue, with stress and accent picked out, making the music a character itself.

There’s a certain amount of casual sexism and racism – the girls are often referred to as a unit, expected to be pretty and ego-free, there solely to look good; and the characters’ views of black musicians are hideously stereotyped – but I think this is a reflection of the setting rather than actual bigotry.

None of the characters is particularly fleshed out. The book is very short, with a song often taking up a few pages, which doesn’t give much room for stuff like character development or personal histories, so we learn very little about these people, only what they say and do while they’re in the band. There’s a lot of fun to be had guessing at when a character is lying or embellishing, which we got the feeling was a lot.

Quick word of warning: there is a lot of coarse language, which I don’t mind myself but can see others being put off by it.

This is a very funny book, an easy and quick read. Thanks Matthias for choosing it for book club!

First published in Ireland in 1987.

One thought on “Comedy is soul

  1. lillput March 24, 2011 at 8:18 pm

    Interesting review.

    I read it a long time ago, immediately after seeing the film.

    I think the film is more engaging than the book because it actually has the music to listen to.

    I seem to remember liking the sequels better than this book (The Snapper and the Van).

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