Mild Irish Rose

Paula Spencer BY Roddy Doyle. Penguin (Non-Classics). Paperback, 288 pages. $14.

The cover of Paula Spencer

Roddy Doyle, in an interview published in The Guardian, was quoted as saying, “I still live in the same neighborhood where I grew up, and I still have to face the milkman and the neighbors if they don’t like what I write.” I read this, and all I could think was, ye gods, Doyle’s milkman reads modern fiction. Do you think Jonathan Franzen’s milkman reads Jonathan Franzen? Does Thomas Pynchon’s read Pynchon? Irvine Welsh’s read Welsh? Come to think of it, which of these authors even live in places where milkmen still deliver? We may have the beginnings of a new parlor game here.

This is not an entirely irrelevant thought, first because it suggests that if there’s still any such thing as the common reader, he or, more likely, she is probably a fan of Doyle’s. And second because the cover of the author’s new novel, Paula Spencer, shows an almost empty milk bottle in a bare fridge, an image that is drawn from the opening pages of the book.

Paula Spencer, a forty-seven-year-old working-class Irishwoman, a widow, returns from her job as a cleaner, opens the door of the vast refrigerator bought for her by her daughter Nicola, and observes that “the fridge is fuckin’ empty.” In fact, it actually contains an old carrot, half a jar of mayonnaise “left over from last summer,” a bit of cheese, and some Kerrygold butter, but the symbolism, and I do think it is symbolism, seems clear enough. Paula’s life is a rather empty, chilly, stale thing, which is not to say that it couldn’t be cleaned out and restocked, and in any case things could be, and indeed have been, very much worse.

Doyle’s readers will recognize our heroine as the eponymous narrator of The Woman Who Walked into Doors (1996), and this book is a sequel of sorts, something that I, for one, much as I liked that book, wasn’t feeling any great need for. The earlier novel is self-contained and perfect, with its combination of warm domestic detail and hideous brutality, raising the question of how a woman could love a violent husband, and perhaps also how we, as readers, can love a female character who for much of the book is so inert and befuddled because of drink. Doyle has a lot to live up to.

Still, we’ve seen in the Barrytown Trilogy and the two Henry Smart novels, A Star Called Henry (1999) and Oh, Play That Thing (2004), that Doyle’s not an author who abandons his creations, and the good, if slightly unexciting, news is that Paula is managing to stay sober. At the start of the book, a few weeks before her forty-eighth birthday, she’s been off the drink for four months and five days, and she remains that way throughout the novel, which ends on her forty-ninth birthday, by which time there’s cake in her formerly “fuckin’ empty” fridge. It’s a small step but a decisive one. Of course, Paula has a few domestic problems to deal with—her daughter Leanne, who’s inherited a taste for booze; her son John Paul (named after the pope), who’s fighting his own skirmishes with heroin; her sister Carmel, who undergoes a mastectomy in the course of the book; and her younger son, Jack, who’s been suspended from school for writing insulting remarks about one of his teachers on a website. There is also the small matter that Paula hasn’t had sex for a decade or so, though less is made of this than you might expect. When she eventually does meet a decent man, he’s a dull one who says, “The most interesting thing about me is the fact that my wife ran away with another woman,” and although it looks as though they might be about to start a relationship, neither Paula nor the reader has any expectation that this is going to solve her problems.

Alongside its immersion in domestic drama, the novel also works as an effective news bulletin from the old country. The familiar, historic, troubled Ireland is still thoroughly recognizable, a place where people can say they enjoy crack and be talking about banter rather than drugs, a place where people haven’t forgotten the hunger strikers and any number of sectarian shootings. But Doyle takes care to depict a modern country, with euros for currency, where people own second homes in Bulgaria, and where the three Polish girls who live next door may be either lap dancers or Google employees.

That’s plenty of content for any novel, yet compared with the strong meat of The Woman Who Walked into Doors, the new book is bound to come across as rather small potatoes. In Paula’s first outing, she was a pass-out drunk, a brutally beaten wife, and an occasional (physical) child abuser, who drove her odious husband, Charlo, out of the house by nearly braining him with a frying pan; she was finally freed when the Garda shot him dead after a botched and murderous kidnapping. That’s more than enough drama for one lifetime, which is probably the point Doyle intended in plotting his sequel, but it inevitably makes for a tamer narrative.

And perhaps this is the way it always is with ex-drunks, fictional and otherwise. You may be glad for their sake that they’re clean and sober, but at the same time, you’re aware that a bit of the spark has gone out of them. The story of a woman struggling nobly and good-humoredly with addiction doesn’t pack the same punch as the story of a drunk married to a vicious criminal. At its heart, Paula Spencer is a book about being satisfied with small pleasures, and we know how hard it is to write about happiness of any sort.

For reasons that I’ve been trying hard to fathom, Paula Spencer was written in the third person, whereas The Woman Who Walked into Doors is in the first. In any case, I’m not sure that much is lost, or for that matter gained; the third-person narration is entirely localized—Paula is never “offstage,” we’re party to all her thoughts, and there’s very little distancing. The prose style is appropriate enough for the characters it describes, and although its artful clunkiness may alienate some readers, it won’t be unfamiliar to Doyle’s fans. A typical passage runs, “She’s in Rita’s again. It’s two days later. She’s had three biscuits from the tin. That’s her limit. She’s not sure why— it’s not her tin. Two chocolate ones and a plain. They’re in the front room, sitting back. The gas fire’s on. It looks like real coal; it really does. Paula could stare at it for ever.”

Doyle ventures to explore motherly love, female solidarity, and the way women talk when men aren’t there. There’s something very brave indeed about a male writer who chooses to operate in this territory—this author succeeds and makes it look effortless. It seems to me there are very few false notes: I was even convinced that a forty-eight-year-old Irish cleaning lady might enjoy the White Stripes, although maybe I just want to believe that. I was glad that Doyle didn’t make her an absolute paragon of hip good taste and also gave her a liking for Coldplay.

Doyle also puts some very funny, and completely in-character, words into Paula’s head: “All mothers feel guilt. She heard some woman on the telly say that. She saw her on that afternoon show on RTE. The woman was smiling. She had glasses on top of her head. She’s written a book about being a mother. For fuck sake.”

The words he puts in her mouth strike me as sometimes less successful. Here’s an exchange between Paula and John Paul:

I’m thinking of going to Istanbul, he says.
Why? . . .
Champions League final, he says.
Liverpool are in it? she says.
Ah, lovely. In Istanbul?
That’s, which one? The capital of Turkey.
Ankara’s the capital . . . .
But it’s Turkey, she says.

And so on. To me, this reads more like the bones of a screenplay that a couple of good character actors could have great fun with than like part of a novel. But even as I write these words, I feel like a spoilsport.

You have to be a very cold, churlish, humorless fish indeed not to warm to Doyle’s writing and his universe. His characters are bursting with love and pain, honesty and wit, and if their lives have elements of soap opera and if they sometimes express themselves in broad cliché, well, sometimes that’s exactly what life’s like. Once again, Doyle seems likely to have brought off that most surprising and deft of conjuring tricks, winning the approval of both critics and common readers.

Geoff Nicholson’s most recent book was Sex Collectors (Simon & Schuster, 2006). He is working on a novel titled The Death Sentence.