Roddy Doyle: Paula Spencer

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.


  1. Like you I read The Woman Who Walked Into Doors about ten years ago and found it profoundly moving. (I still think The Snapper is his best!) But for some strange reason I have not being inclined to read Paula Spencer, maybe because I thought it would not live up to expectactions or because I thought it’d be a dull read, I mean, what more could Doyle say about an alcoholic woman? But having read your review I think I might have changed my mind and will have to add this to my wish list… (I really ought to stop coming to your blog — I end up wishlist-ing everything!!)

  2. No, don’t stop coming here kimbofo, please!

    I know exactly what you mean. I had no desire to read this last year in hardback, and the reviews I read were fairly middling. But I picked it up in a local bookshop when I saw it and enjoyed it much more than I expected to (as you can tell). I’ve got A Star Called Henry for my next Doyle, which many say is his best, so looking forward to that.

  3. Unfortunately A Star Called Henry is the one that put me off reading any more Doyle. I don’t know why. It just didn’t resonate with me at all.

  4. Oh dear! And I’d heard it was the second Henry Smart novel, Oh Play That Thing, where he lost the plot! I wonder if he does intend to finish the trilogy – he’s written two books since Oh Play That Thing and has a collection of stories coming out soon…

  5. It’s interesting that kimbofo said that, I loved The woman who… and Paddy Clarke ha ha ha, plus The Giggler treatment is an amazingly funny and entertaining children’s book. Consequently I eagerly purchased A star called Henry, and expected it to be an enticing page turner, and yet I just haven’t been able to read it at all. It has sat unloved and dusty on the shelf for years now, and I have Oh play… as well, managed to get a proof. I don’t know why I got such a mental block. Odd.

    1. I do believe it appeals more to a male, with all the wheeling and dealing and especially the violence. Not very sympathetic female characters in the books as far as I know. Probably a true reflection of the times. Am I allowed to say that in these politically correct times.

      1. Yes you are Peter; however you’re not allowed to say “Am I allowed to say that in these politically correct times”, which makes you sound like a Daily Mail leader. 😉

  6. John Self, don’t worry: I LOVED a star called henry !!! Sooo glad the sequel finally came out > it took ages. So I am guessing the third one will take (too) long aswell to come through, but I am sure it will 🙂
    Glad to hear you enjoyed paula Spencer I was wondering if it was good enough to buy. I’ll go get it now !

    1. hi suzi i just need to know did you ever live in cobh co cork Ireland iam trying to find a friend who marrird a guy called spencer sorry i know this is not the right web for this Brigid

  7. For some reason, although I found The Woman Who Walked into Doors, and indeed, all of Doyle’s novels, excellent, I never really “fancied” this. Now I really want to read it. Thanks, er, John Self / Shade.

  8. Kimbofo:

    A Star Called Henry was a major change for Doyle and the follow up disappointing. I stopped reading just before Henry met Satchmo. I’ll finish it one day. The third will be good and make it all worthwhile I’m sure.
    He is going to have to go some though.

    Paula Spencer and The Woman Who…. are brilliant. How he gets the female personailty I don’t know.

    I haven’t read any other earlier books. I thought they would be too trivial. I started with Paddy Cklarke and lost it on a plane somewhere over the Atlantic. I never went further back in his catalogue. Obviously I’m too influenced by the Booker Prize Winners. Any recommendations ?

  9. No, Peter. I’ve read The Commitments and The Snapper and they’re entertaining but not much more.

    I take it his forthcoming novel The Dead Republic is the third volume in the Henry Smart trilogy. I still have the first but haven’t read it yet.

  10. I did an author’s festival interview with Doyle about 10 years ago in Calgary — he told me in the Green Room that he had spent most of his free time here at a local museum exhibit, The Year of the Cowboy, and said it absolutely fascinated him. He told the session that volume three of the trilogy would be set in the mid-West of America (mainly Chicago, if I recall correctly) as Henry continues his escape from Ireland. I know that was a long-time ago and the trilogy seems to have been stalled, but The Dead Republic would suggest that perhaps some version of it is still intact for volume three. I liked the first volume, did not care much for the second. I will read the third.

  11. I am a Daily Mail reader. !! I might add I try and read all the non-cartoon papers.

    Thanks for your comments. I’m living in Italy these past 25 years so A Daily Mail reader needs explaining to me.

    1. Well that was an eye opener.
      Have we we really come so far down a slippery slope. Over here (Italy) you can say anything and people say I wish I had said that.

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