Ten years ago I read Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, and immediately thought it was his best novel to date. It described the life of Paula Spencer, a Dublin woman married to brutal thug Charlo. They had been the subject of his little-seen TV series Family, but Paula gained new depth on the page. Now Doyle has revisited her life, ten years on, in Paula Spencer.
The book describes a year of Paula’s long journey away from being “a woman stopping madness by meeting it halfway.” She is an alcoholic (off the sauce for four months now), working cash in hand and living hand to mouth, with four kids presenting various problems and occasional joys. Eldest daughter Nicola is prosperous and attentive (“Their fridge … a present from Nicola. It takes up half the kitchen. It’s one of those big silver, two-door jobs. She opens it the way film stars open the curtains. Daylight! Ta-dah! Empty. What was Nicola thinking of? The stupid bitch. How to make a poor woman feel poorer. Buy her a big fridge. Fill that, loser. The stupid bitch. What was she thinking?”). Son John Paul is a recovering heroin addict, living across town and married to Star, with whom Paula doesn’t get on. Younger son Jack is still at home, and is the one in whom Paula places most hope. Also at home is Leanne: Paula fears that she is following in her alcoholic footsteps:
There are so many Leannes. She sees and feels hundreds of her, every day – it’s no exaggeration. The little girl clutching Paula’s leg. The teenager painting nail varnish onto bleeding skin. The baby crying while her mammy tries to crawl under the cot. The wreck on the couch. The young woman hobbling to work. The little girl who never sits still, who makes everyone laugh. The little girl who wets the bed. The teenager who wets the bed. The woman who wets the bed. They’re all there, every day. The young woman she’ll see tomorrow morning. The skinny monster she might see tomorrow morning. The girl who hugs her. The woman who hit her.
All her children are recovering from Paula’s alcoholism, just as she is, and Doyle brings out brilliantly their differing responses: the over-watchful, the unforgiving, the jointly damaged. And he does this in remarkably spare language, which at first seems unnaturally staccato and repetitive, but soon takes on a laconic poetry. The work the reader must do for all the adjectives and purple prose Doyle leaves out, gives an added richness to Paula’s relationships with her children and her siblings. Some simple passages, such as the one where Paula intensively makes all the beds in the house largely to keep herself busy and distract her mind from wanting another drink, are powerfully affecting.
There is also, amid the unsentimental portrayal, some of the humour Doyle displayed in the Barrytown trilogy:
Where would she wear a good coat? She doesn’t go out anywhere. She doesn’t go to Mass. She doesn’t go to the pictures. She’s never been in a theatre. Work and the shops – that’s it. Her sisters have given up on her. Her last text from Carmel was ages ago and it wasn’t a party invitation. She was offering Paula a chicken. Spare chkn. Wnt? Paula didn’t answer.
Shve it up yr arse.
The book also reflects the changes in Ireland in the last ten or fifteen years, the growth in wealth, political development and influx of foreign workers into a formerly monoethnic society. But it is as a character-driven story, which makes you hope the best for its main players (urging Paula not to give in and have another drink each time she is tempted), where it excels.