If Roddy Doyle hadn't earned his chops as a hugely entertaining pop novelist with The Barrytown Trilogy, he probably wouldn't be turning into such a fine "serious" novelist. The Barrytown Trilogy were comedies about the glue that holds families together. The humor came from the loving, blunt, unsentimental way the characters talked to each other. The books he's written since then, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, and the new The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, are borderline tragedies whose protagonists are trying to keep their families from flying apart.
Paula Spencer is a 39-year-old mother of four, an alcoholic doing her damnedest to raise her kids alone since kicking out her abusive husband, Charlo. The novel begins with Paula being told that Charlo has been shot by the police after killing a woman in a bungled robbery attempt.
Writing in the first person for the first time (and in a woman's voice), Doyle has joined his plain-spoken style to a heightened sense of observation and a wounding emotional power. What's most devastating in the section where Paula details Charlo's abuse is its matter-of-factness. "A taxi to the hospital. He held my hand and put his free arm around my back to keep me steady. . . He chatted with the driver. He was relaxed, in control, looking fter me. . . He had just pulled my arm out of its socket, less than an hour before."
There's no self-pity in Paula, and Doyle doesn't shy away from the economic pragmatism (or Charlo's sexual magnetism) that keeps her in the marriage. What's toughest about Doyle's view of Catholic culture is that, like John N. Smith's film The Boys of St. Vincent, it has the guts to suggest that, in some basic way, abuse is the logical outcome of a culture where power belongs to a chosen few and it's the duty of the unlucky rest to suffer and serve. Paula's refusal to do that is the book's shaky affirmation, an unlikely example of how no can mean yes. -- Salon
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In Ireland, the euphemism "she walked into a door" is so loaded with grim implications of domestic abuse that it is usually whispered, not spoken. In this astonishing new work from Doyle (whose most recent novel, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, won the 1993 Booker Prize), Dublin housewife and mother Paula Spencer narrates her life as a spouse who walks into doors. Hopelessly in love with heavy drinker and relentless sadist Charlo, Paula is gradually engulfed in psychic darkness, every last particle of self-esteem literally beaten out of her. The devastation of her world is made even more wrenching by her chatty, captivating storytelling, flush with Doyle's knack for Dublin humor, vernacular and local color. With this book, Doyle attains a new level of excellence. He writes about a woman's experience with a perception that is rare, a compassion that is scorching and an uncompromising frankness that splinters his heroine's suffering directly into the reader's heart. Doyle triumphs here, with a tough-minded but deeply moving exploration of a wretched marriage, a microcosm of a pervasive situation in Ireland that few will acknowledge.
Booker Prize winner Doyle (Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, LJ 12/93) writes of a woman's recovery from alcoholism and an abusive marriage.
Proud of her early-developed breasts, Paula O'Leary "went with" lots of boys from her working-class Dublin neighborhood. With perfectly timed dance moves to "My Eyes Adored You," Charlo Spencer takes her. But he changes after their honeymoon. When Charlo first strikes her, she is stunned. His violent outbursts increase as slaps and bruises become yanked-out hair, broken fingers, and knocked-out teeth. While raising four children, she continues to be abused; she loses self-respect, denies how bleak things are, and drinks heavily. Once after blackening her eye, Charlo asks how she got it. Knowing his reaction depends on her answer, she claims to have walked into the bedroom door. Doyle's first novel, The Commitments, was turned into a successful film; a subsequent one, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, won the 1993 Booker Prize. Here the reader can cinematically envision Paula Spencer getting beaten down while friends, family members, and emergency-room staff blame her "accidents" on alcohol. Yet she never gives up, always washes off the blood, and knows she must continue for her children's sake. This gut-wrenching novel will be much discussed by groups of physically abused people.
A skillful mixture of buoyant farce and wrenching drama from the popular Irish author (The Commitments, 1987; Bookerwinner Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, 1993, etc.).
Doyle's protagonist and narrator, Paula Spencer, will remind readers of the hilariously feisty, foulmouthed women of his earlier books. Indeed, Paula's a match for any of them as she recalls episodes from her experiences as competitive sibling and worldly- wise schoolgirl, moonstruck young wife, and, finally, embattled mother. And the core of her adult life is her terrified relationship with abusive husband Charlo, a charismatic monster whose unpredictable swings between tenderness and violence keep the hopeful Paula in a constant state of submissive confusion. ("He loved me and he beat me. I loved him and I took it. It's as simple as that, and as stupid and complicated.") Charlo's uncontrollable thuggishness eventually removes him from her life for good, but that isn't the end of her trouble. Doyle's masterly use of jabbing, staccato sentences and emotional repetitions produces a nervous intensity that exactly reproduces how his heroineand she is that, no other word will dolives out her imperilled days. The novel is filled with sharply observed, amusingly distinctive characters, including even Paula's young children. Hardly any other writer alive can create families and neighborhoods full of mutually involved people with such easy authority. And nobody alive uses filthy language with such exuberant expressive virtuosity. Only in the closing pages, when Doyle's empathy with his character's plight takes on some of the righteous quality of a case study, does the grip falter. Even so, few readers will be able to look away even for a moment.
Some may object that Doyle, having perfected a winning formula, is merely writing the same raucous story of small-town Irish life over and over. Well, let them. It's a bloody wonderful story.
From the Publisher
“Roddy Doyle’s unsparing examination of a brutal marriage transcends the boundaries of class and nationhood.”
“Paula Spencer may be Doyle’s most successful literary creation yet, a tour de force of literary ventriloquism that gives the lie to the old writing workshop canard that a man can’t write from the point of view of a woman, let alone in her voice.”