Christine Dwyer Hickey, review of Paula Spencer by Roddy Doyle, in The Irish Times (9 Sept. 2006)

[Details: Christine Dwyer Hickey, ‘Finding a true voice at last’, review of Roddy Doyle, Paula Spencer: A novel, in The Irish Times (9 Sept. 2006), Weekend. ]

There is no doubt that Roddy Doyle knows his Dublin northside terrain. When it comes to that accent his is a finely tuned ear. I’m told that he knows his football. Also his soul music. He has a unique empathy with kids. He understands language and the power of dialogue. But as Paula Spencer returns to us after a 10-year absence, the question needs to be asked - does he know or understand women?

Paula first came to our attention with the BBC series The Family in 1994, a year after Doyle had won the Booker with the excellent Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha . And if the Barrytown trilogy - The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van - had been a celebration of Dublin ’s northside working class, (or rather the non-working class of the 1980s) The Family was a darker prospect.

Gone was the spirited gurrier with his wit and his heart of gold. Out stepped the brutal, hard-fisted savage with no heart at all. Doyle came in for a lot of criticism at the time, particularly among the residents of Ballymun, where the series had been located. They took exception to the brush that had uniformly tarred them.

The controversy passed but Paula Spencer lived on in Roddy Doyle’s head and in 1996 she re-emerged in The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, an unconvincing novel in my opinion.

Before Charlo Spencer got his hands on her, she was Paula O’Leary. I used to hang around with such girls, the granddaughters of the women Sean O’Casey had written about, and couldn’t believe that they could be so stupid and so lacking in pride as to do and say many of the things Doyle was making them do and say. I objected to them being set up for cheap shocks and even cheaper laughs.

Ironically, Doyle’s most interesting female character to date is a woman who really does exist - his mother, in that gentle portrait of his parents Rory & Ita . Here Doyle stood back and allowed Ita speak for herself. The things she notices, the way she describes them, the manner in which she uses her memory - all this makes Ita the woman she is. All this allows us to know her.

So what about Paula Spencer now - are we allowed to know her? Forty-eight years of age, a widow, a grandmother, a recovering alcoholic, a cleaner of offices and middle-class houses. And I’m very glad to say that somewhere, somehow in the decade since she was the woman who walked into doors, Doyle has finally captured her. He now knows Paula Spencer. He’s gotten into the heart and mind, the very bones of her. He allows her to be.

The novel is called Paula Spencer, a good title really, because it’s about little else. Nothing wrong with that, after all it is an exploration of one woman’s mind as she struggles to recover from so many things, not least of which is alcoholism. Anything that happens we feel and see through Paula: her taunting memory; the scars left by her late husband; the guilt she feels for the wasted years when she neglected her kids for booze; her changing relationships with them now that they are older, and now that she is sober.

Paula goes through her mundane day, making her little lists: things to do; dinners to buy; things she hopes to one day own. A bedside lamp or an ATM card - to Paula these are not possessions but achievements.

As her recovery progresses, her vision grows clearer and she tentatively moves towards the modern world, becomes a dab hand at the texting, is enchanted by the internet. Meets a fella she half-fancies. Buys her first CD player.

Nothing has really changed for Paula, yet without the drink everything is different. She lives in the same house, does the same job, occasionally comes close to losing the battle. Her back is killing her from years of graft, her sister has cancer, her mother is losing it, the daughter-in-law is a bit of a minger. Her own daughter is an alcoholic.

Doyle’s writing is as sharp as ever. Sentences snap out from the page, some so short they only contain one word. Occasionally full pages of hyphenated dialogue can give the sense of reading through venetian blinds. There is still plenty of grit in this novel. But something else too, a flow that softens the edges.

And so at last Paula Spencer has come into her own and Roddy Doyle has gained a comfortable and wholly convincing access into the female mind.

Paula Spencer: A novel By Roddy Doyle Jonathan Cape, 277pp. £16.99

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