Roddy Doyle, Paula Spencer
January 2007, 279 pages, $24.95
if you are a devotee of the subgenre we might dub The Recovery Canon, you won’t like Paula Spencer.
True, this new novel from Roddy Doyle tells the story of a recovering alcoholic, but it lacks many of the hallmarks of true recovery works. No narcissism. No celebration of selfish behavior. And (horrors!) no sentimentality.
So stop here if you’re looking for a ride on the Self-Pity Express.
Instead, you’ll find yourself riding a Dart train through the new Dublin , the one populated by immigrants from Africa and Eastern Europe , the one the Irish don’t leave behind for more promising shores. You’ll see everything through the eyes of Paula Spencer, a forty-eight-year-old mother who criss-crosses the city and its suburbs on her way to the houses and offices she cleans.
Although this story is told in third person, the point of view is so close, it’s even more intimate than Paula’s first-person account of her first thirty-nine years, otherwise known as Doyle’s fifth novel, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors. That book grew out of a television series, Family, that glued Ireland to its comfy chairs every week it ran. Doyle decided to take the characters he’d created for TV onto the printed page, and told their stories through Paula. She was his first female narrator; critics agreed that he’d nailed it. A battered women’s shelter in Dublin said he’d captured their clients’ brute reality. An Irish social worker thought Paula must be one of her clients.
The Woman Who Walked Into Doors is unhinged from linear time, but its voice is conventional first-person narration. Paula Spencer‘s voice is entirely its own. It can be a bit jarring at first, in its staccato delivery and self-contradiction and sudden temporal shifts, but after a few pages, the rhythm of Paula’s inner dialogue seems easy and familiar. This is a woman who must contradict herself to keep going: “She wants a drink. She doesn’t want a drink. She doesn’t want a drink.” She has to tell herself, repeatedly, “It’s grand.” When she’s flogging herself too harshly, she mentally softens the blows. When she lapses into sentimentality about her past, she sharply corrects herself. Feeling guilty after an argument with her daughter, she tells herself she’s pathetic:
Win her back? She never had her. She gave her away years ago. She threw Leanne away.
It’s one of the interesting discoveries. Sentimentality doesn’t have to be soft. She threw Leanne away. An old alco’s sentimental shite. She threw Leanne nowhere. She held her tight and slobbered all over her. Your mammy loves you SOOOOOO much.
But it’s dreadful. That’s rock solid honest. It’s fuckin’ dreadful.
She’s also trying to piece together present and past, into a future where her family isn’t fractured and living hand-to-mouth, where her youngest daughter isn’t becoming a drunk, where her kids don’t expect to smell booze on her breath. It’s natural, then, that while she’s vacuuming an office, she remembers things her dead (and abusive) husband, Charlo, used to say. Talking with one child, she quickly finds herself thinking of mistakes she made with another.
It’s this mental back-and-forth and here-to-there that draws you deep into Paula’s consciousness, and that intimacy transforms this character-driven novel into a page-turner. The searing memories and small present-day triumphs create disproportionate suspense. Soon, even the everyday becomes a cliffhanger. Will Paula send a text message to John Paul, her son, the former heroin addict who’s re-entered her life? Will she go to the new Italian café for an espresso? Will Leanne eat Paula’s lentil soup?
By delving so deeply into the main character’s brain, a novel might risk flattening its other inhabitants. But Paula’s four children and two sisters, even the nosy but well-meaning neighbor, are solid, three-dimensional. The scenes with her sisters are particularly well drawn; Doyle captures their bawdy humor and subtle competition, chronicling power shifts with just a few lines of dialogue over ready-to-bake canapes from Tesco.
And those canapes-along with consumer goods and technology like boutique coffee and cell phones and boutique coffee and Google and text messages-don’t just characterize Paula and her family, they capture the broader world of Dublin and beyond. Working, worrying, steadying herself, Paula also manages to chronicle the city’s changing character and to set herself squarely in time. Riding a train, she observes the changing landscape. Cleaning a kitchen, she listens to the news. Two hundred and seventy-nine pages: a bit over a year in Paula’s life, a society, a contemporary world.