I thought I knew Roddy Doyle and his work, but really, I didn’t have a clue.
The Commitments, The Van, and The Snapper – I had read and enjoyed them. Everyone in Ireland did in the late 1990s. The movie adaptations were fun. The warm hearted, foul mouthed family focused characters were the stock in trade of this successful writer who was the first Irishman to win the Booker Prize. I should have spotted the clues though. The humour in his books often masked a pain, or came with a jag. The laughter hid the tears. Family, the stunning four part television series he created in the ‘90s should have been another clue. This tale of a dysfunctional family with an abusive father was must watch television in Ireland and hinted at the dark corners of life that Doyle wasn’t afraid to look into and served as a precursor to this book.
(If you are interested in watching Family, all four episodes are available on YouTube)
The clues were there but I didn’t believe that he could write a book that would devastate me with its brilliance, its searing power and its brutal honesty and that he could give one of the most clear sighted depictions of an abused, powerless, invisible woman. A woman who walks into doors…..
Paula Spencer, the titular woman, is a thirty-nine year old mother of four, a cleaner and an alcoholic. The police have just given her some news and as she tries to process a shocking turn of events, she looks back on her relationship with her estranged husband Charlo and the seventeen years he spent abusing her until she finally kicked him out. She attempts to find some meaning and even hope in her own thoroughly recognisable but wholly singular story of how the young smart happy Paula O’Leary became the beaten (literally and metaphorically) Paula Spencer.
As Paula tries to make sense of what has happened, she is faced with the difficulty of ever determining exactly how and why things occurred. She seems to rewrite her memory as a coping mechanism, or as an antidote to the life she has now. She is poignantly convinced that her father was essentially a good man who behaved the way he did because he loved his family and wanted to protect them. Yet her sister Carmel’s memories suggest that her father may not have been so different from her abusive husband. When Paula remembers something good, the weather is always sunny, but bad things happen when the weather turns. She also uses music as a trigger for her memories, but tellingly, no music is mentioned at all during the years when the abuse at the hands of the man who was supposed to love her is at its worst. She cannot trust her own memories, her own judgement, because look where it has landed her. Above all, she cannot trust herself.
His timing was perfect. The Rubettes stopped and Frankie Valli started singing My Eyes Adored You. He must have planned it. His arms went through my arms just as Frankie went My; his fingers were knitted and on my back by the time Frankie got to Eyes. He’d been drinking. I could smell it but it didn’t matter. He wasn’t drunk. His arms rested on my hips and he brought me round and round.
But I never laid a hand on you – my eyes adored you –
I put my head on his shoulder. He had me.
Doyle perfectly captures how trapped Paula is, how she is unable to reach out and get help. Complicity lies behind her guilt; complicity of those near her—the doctors, friends, family, and even her children—who will not acknowledge that something is wrong, that Paula is in over her head. Yet Paula also feels complicit too. There is a suggestion that Paula was a woman born into a specific time or place where little was expected of her apart from marriage and children. The bright happy girl changes as her society puts her in her place and reminds her that she is dependent on the benevolence of the men around her.
I don’t know how many times I heard those words of the next few years. Come on. It never stopped. Come on. You were a slut of you let fellas put their tongues in your mouth and you were a tight bitch if you didn’t – but you could also be a slut if you didn’t. One or the other, sometimes both. There was no escape; that was you. Before I was a proper teenager……I was a slut. My daddy said it, fellas said it, other girls said it, men in vans and lorries said it. My mammy called me in off the street.
Her world becomes defined by the men around her and there is a feeling that, Paula, a woman whose fate, like Charlos fist, was always coming for her and her options for avoiding it were limited.
It was always coming. Before that night; before we got married; before we met. That was Charlo.
Doyle’s use of language in the book pierces right to the heart of the situation. Sentences are short, dripping with vernacular and always to the point. There is no authorial voice to distance us from what is happening, there is just Paula.
Just this once. I’ll start again. I’ll pour the rest down the sink. I will….I’m in control. I’m crying. I’m shaking….Stop, calm down. You’ll drop the bottle. I’m blocking the light. Done it. Open. The bottle the bottle. I close over the door. I can’t be seen. Off with the top. Up to my mouth. Head back, down. I hate it I love it I hate it I love it I hate it I love it I love it I love it. I’m younger. I’m fit. I’m slim and warm. No more pain.
Doyle is also smart enough to keep the details of the abuse subtle until one devastating chapter. It is as if Paula hasn’t wanted to face it, but it all comes out in one frightening torrent. It’s a difficult chapter to read, it’s more frightening than most ‘horror’ books because this is what one human being can inflict on another. Another he claims to love. What Doyle captures best in this chapter is not the beatings and the abuse themselves, but the dread of them. The constant terrifying dread of violence that Paula lives with for seventeen years with no knowledge of what will set it off.
I was always to blame. I should have kept my mouth shut. But that didn’t work either. I could provoke him that way as well. Not talking. Talking. Looking at him. Not looking at him. Looking at him that way. Not looking at him that way. Looking and talking. Sitting, standing. Being in the room. Being.
For all its harrowing intensity, “The Woman Who Walked Into Doors” is a pleasure to read. It’s beautifully written, sympathetic and skilfully narrated. Doyle does not depict Paula as some perfect saintly woman. She hits her kids. She’s an alcoholic and some of her failures are her own fault, yet she always tries to do her best, and as a character she commands a certain grudging respect from the reader.
I never gave up. I always got up off the floor. I always borrowed a tenner till Thursday. There were always Christmas presents, birthday presents. They always had a Christmas tree. There was always some sort of food. I got between them and him. I guarded the fridge. I made ends meet.
I never gave up. I’m here.
I picked myself up. I washed the blood off my face. I put on the kettle.
Doyle’s trademark chatty vernacular and magical storytelling are used to great effect in this book because his down-to-earth style makes the devastation of Paula’s life all the more wrenching. He writes about this woman’s experience with a rare perception and compassion with a frankness that is both shocking and recognisable – laying bare a wretched marriage that must mirror thousands of wretched marriages that are rarely acknowledged.
He loved me and he beat me. I loved him and I took it. It’s a simple as that, and as stupid and complicated. It’s terrible.
For all the pain in the book, Doyle finishes on a note of optimism, He gives us a glimmer of hope and reminds us of the strength that Paula doesn’t realise she has. He allows her heroine status for a moment, but trusts his reader to know that a change has been made, but a life has not been changed. The reality of Paula still exists; she is an alcoholic, scrapping by, worrying about her drug addict son and putting her youngest child to bed too early so she can start drinking. Paula isn’t there yet. She hasn’t made it through just yet, but we can’t underestimate her.
The Woman Who Walked in to Doors is finally, an ode to all those women whose resilience allows them to survive and to carve out a comparatively safe place for themselves and their children as best they can.
That Roddy Doyle gave them such a heartbreakingly honest voice in the character of Paula Spencer is impressive. Actually, impressive doesn’t do it justice. I know Paula is going to stay with me for a long, long time.
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