Oct 1, 2006

Paula Spencer - thoughts

From his boisterous first novel The Commitments onward, Irish novelist Roddy Doyle has continued to surprise his audience. Over the decades, he has matured into a Booker-award winning novelist, effortlessly evoking the tribulations of both modern-day and historical Ireland, and becoming the unofficial spokesman for contemporary Irish literature.

Now, Doyle unveils two new surprises in his novel Paula Spencer. First, he revisits a world he created ten years previous in his acclaimed The Woman Who Walked into Doors.

Second, he repeats himself.

Doors documented the ghastly day-to-day existence of Paula, an abused housewife who relates her story in a tone at once sardonic, tragic, and inspired. In the telling of her life, from falling in love with the dangerous Charlo to throwing him out of the house with a well-aimed frying pan, Doyle produced one of his most beloved characters.

Paula Spencer takes up her story a decade later, struggling after four months of sobriety. It hasn’t been an easy time for Paula. “There have been good months before. Paula could count them. They won’t add up to much more than a year.”

Becoming a middle-aged alcoholic has profoundly distressed the Paula of old, reducing her to a timid matron who wonders where her life went. “Charlo knocked it out of her. That must be it. The confidence, the guts – gone.”

As Paula sets about grappling with remaining sober, she begins to repair the fissures that have opened between herself and her children. Her daughter Leanne is following the same path Paula did, while son Jack is only now starting to understand the pain her mother has gone through.

Paula’s reality is now a constant balancing act. “She has to be careful. For the rest of her life. It’s killing her. She can feel it. Every word, every little decision. Chipping away.”

As in Doors, Doyle never sugarcoats or over-sentimentalizes the wretchedness of addiction. Most stirring are the quick asides: Paula waking in vomit next to her daughter; watching her son steal her television to feed his heroin addiction.

Despite the overwhelming depression inherent in such topics, Doyle never allows despair to swamp the narrative. Even in Spencer’s most harrowing scene, a devastating moment when the thirst for alcohol becomes overwhelming, Doyle manages the not-inconsiderable feat of capturing Paula’s humiliation while at the same moment expressing the possibility of redemption.

No one ever truly outruns addiction, and Doyle’s supposition that dependence harms the family as much as the individual is compelling. Yet Spencer, as brilliantly realized as the title character is, never brings anything new to the topic.

Consequently, Paula Spencer feels somewhat repetitive. Doors was masterful, a story that blindsided the reader with its power and compassion. Paula Spencer, while immensely affecting, feels superfluous, a repeat of themes that were fully examined the first times.

“You can’t leave things behind,” Paula thinks. “They come with you. You can manage. That’s the best you can expect.”

Paula Spencer manages, and in her own parlance, “She’s grand.” Doyle is also managing, but from someone of his caliber, he’s also coasting.

First printed in The Winnipeg Free Press, October 1, 2006.

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