Saturday, 7 June 2014

Book Review: Paula Spencer by Roddy Doyle


Paula Spencer. Roddy Doyle. Pub.2006. (277 pages).

I first encountered the character of Paula Spencer in Doyle's earlier novel 'The Woman Who Walked Into Doors'. (1996).
The book was recommended to me by my literature tutor, as a good example of working class fiction, which stood out largely due to Doyle's creation of Paula Spencer, an ordinary housewife and mother, who endured years of physical and psychological abuse at the hands of her husband Charlo. She was also an alcoholic. 
I enjoyed this book so much so that I chose it as the subject of one of my literature modules for my course.  

Therefore, when I discovered there was a sequel to 'The Woman Who Walked Into Doors', set ten years later, I couldn't wait to get reading in the hope that Paula had blossomed after Charlo's death.

The book begins on Paula's 48th birthday. She has been sober for four months and five days. Life around Paula has changed. Dublin is now home to coffee shops and delicatessens. She still works as a cleaner, but all of her colleagues seem to be young women from Eastern Europe. Her youngest children Jack and Leanne still live at home. 

The book's main focus is on Paula's daily struggle to remain sober and to rebuild  relationships with her children. Years of dealing abuse and alcoholism has distanced her from them. 
Her eldest daughter Nicola has made a success of her life and is frequently buying her gifts. Nicola was the child that witnessed most of her father's abuse towards her mother and perhaps is not resentful towards her mother because of this. Yet Nicola's generosity and concern annoy Paula, she feels humiliated by the support given to her from her daughter, but she's proud of her too. There is a lot of ambivalence in Paula's feelings throughout the book towards all of her children.
John Paul, her eldest son, left home a heroin addict in the previous book. Paula has been estranged from him for nine years, four months and thirteen days. He turns up at Paula's house, before she had stopped drinking. He's now clean. No more drugs, back from the dead. He asks if she is sober:
''John Paul looked straight at her. And she realised. It made her want to die or kill him-he expected her to answer''. (p.54)
John Paul idolised his father, he had no parent to guide him during his formative years, and the guilt that Paula feels because this throughout the book is overwhelming. Their relationship is very awkward and the sensation of 'the elephant in the room' is ever-present when they meet.
Leanne, her youngest daughter lives with Paula. Their relationship is dogged by skeletons of the past. Leanne was the most affected by her parents relationship. The book documents Leanne's descent into alcoholism, and Paula's subsequent reaction. There is so much anger in Leanne's character towards her mother and at times it can be difficult to understand why, especially as the narration is entirely third person from Paula's point of view. 
''Leanne scares Paula. The guilt. It's always there. Leanne is twenty-two. Leanne wets her bed. Leanne deals with it. It's terrible.
Her fault. Paula's fault. The whole mess. Most of Leanne's life''. (p.5)
The recurring theme of violence rears its head in this relationship, as Paula again becomes victim to a few outbursts from Leanne. 
Her baby, Jack, is now sixteen. Severely repressed, stays in his room, terrified of his mother falling off the waggon. It is clear he is Paula's favourite. She is concerned by his introspective personality, but there are no ambivalent of feelings towards him like there are for her other children. 

The narrative of the book is entirely third person, which I am not sure I like. One of the great features of Paula's characterisation in the first book, was her idiolect and free indirect speech. This still occurs, but there is no first person narrative whatsoever.
In some ways Paula Spencer is quite depressing. Life around her has changed, Dublin has moved with the times, society and culture has changed, Ireland is not such a repressive place as it was during the height of her abuse. Yet Paula hasn't changed, she has adapted somewhat. However, she is still a victim of Charlo's abuse. He enters her thoughts frequently and has left a huge psychological scar. She is the one shouldering the blame for the inadequate parenting received by their children, yet she is also a victim.

I warmed to Paula immediately in The Woman Who Walked Into Doors. In Paula Spencer, I didn't. This may have been Doyle's intention, to realistically portray the inner thoughts of a recovering alcoholic. Her thoughts towards her children, at times, are shocking and seem unloving, but considering her life are perhaps realistic. Likewise, the children's attitudes towards their mother, who was abused horrifically by their father seem to lack empathy. The blame appears to be all apportioned to her. Perhaps this is just due to the way the book is written from Paula's third person point of view and her perception of it? Or it could be because she was an alcoholic and 'absent' from them for a large period of their lives, that they cannot trust her?

A positive relationship, that remains, is the one with her sister Carmel. Carmel has been there for Paula through everything and remains firmly by her side. There becomes a point in the book where it is Paula's turn to be a rock for Carmel, which I believe she does. The sisterly bond is arguably the most enjoyable relationship throughout this book.

Whatever the reason for the awkwardness and difficulties in rebuilding the relationships with her children, one thing that is missing from this book is a resolution. I found myself turning each page, believing an almighty showdown would surely occur. It definitely was needed by the family, too many things had been left unsaid. Yet it never occurred. And I think that is the beauty of the book. Like its predecessor, the realism is solid. The atmosphere created between the characters is thick with tension that never really gets resolved. They're just getting on with life as best they can, hoping that each day will be less of a struggle, and that each day takes them a step further from the past.

I must admit, I was slightly disappointed in the characterisation of Paula this time round. I also desired more for her. I wanted her to have turned her life around following Charlo's death. I guess that's what all readers want for a good protagonist. But I do believe Mr Doyle has given his readers a slice of real life. Paula will never have a fairy tale life, like many of us, she is just getting by, taking each step as it comes.