Book: The Woman Who Walked into Doors
Author: Roddy Doyle
Type of book: Fiction
Why Did I Read This Book: This was a case of a title grabbing me when I was at Border’s Books and I bought it on a whim. I almost didn’t buy it because Mary Gordon had a blurb on the back and I responded very negatively to the book I read by her recently, but I’m glad I read it. Very glad.
Availability: Penguin Books is the publisher and you can get a copy here:
Comments:: I fell in love with this book. Absolutely in love. I will, bank account issues be damned, soon order all of Roddy Doyle’s work. There are moments like this in my life, when I read an author and it feels like the literary equivalent of falling into deep, romantic love, wherein you know in advance that even if the object of your affection may fail you in some regard in the future, the sum total of their wonderfulness and compatibility with you will overshadow such moments.
Paula Spencer is an alcoholic mother of four. She cleans homes and white-knuckles her way through her evenings, controlling the times in which she drinks but still drinking far too much. She is a widow, but before her worthless husband died in a robbery attempt gone bad, she threw him out of the family home, a violent catharsis that in the hands of a less honest writer would have been the prelude to saccharine moments in which Paula’s life resolves itself. Her relationship with her sisters would have improved, she would have been able to help her addict son, she would have gotten sober herself and done something more than clean houses.
But Doyle understands that life might have a moment wherein a paralyzed person is suddenly capable of action, but that a moment of clarity does not a changed life make. Doyle shows the arc of Paula’s life as she gradually loses more and more innocence, slowly becomes more and more broken. This novel, better than any novel I have read in recent memory, tells the story of how men defined the world of women, from their actions to their words, and how hard it is to overcome such intrusive beginnings.
This is a book wherein lines and sometimes entire sections resonated deeply with me. Paula’s life was one spent in a world where men acted inappropriately, where men did not protect girls and actively harmed them in some cases, where people blamed women for getting beat up, where even fathers who never physically harmed their children cannot be trusted emotionally. This book was mostly amazing because Doyle shows how a character can hold a multitude of feelings, opinions that can seem contradictory, yet ring very true nonetheless. Doyle’s ability to show the multitudes within Paula shows him as a keen observer of human nature and a fine writer, able to accurately convey complex emotions with the beauty of an accomplished story teller yet with complete honesty.
Paula’s world changed from a nice childhood where she was treated with kindness and respect by elementary school teachers. Her sense of well-being and her idea of herself as clever ended abruptly when she reached secondary school, and was placed in a class for slow children. Sexually harassed to the point of insanity, Paula felt her essential nature change in response to the groping, the pinching, and the relentless name-calling.
That school made me rough. I wasn’t like that before I started there.
–There’s a smell of shite off yeh.
I never said anything like that before; I don’t think I ever did. Now I had to act rough and think dirty. I had to fight. I had to be hard.
Paula, in the manner of many teen girls, internalized what was happening to her.
There were things about me that were wrong and dirty. I thought that then; I felt it. I didn’t say it to anybody; I wouldn’t have known how to and I wouldn’t have wanted to. I was a dirty slut in some way that I didn’t understand and couldn’t control; I made men and boys do things. I used to smell myself to see if it was that, some sort of a scent that I could wash off and they’d leave me alone and it could all go back to normal. There was no smell and it never did go back to normal.
The reader is at least comforted somewhat by the knowledge that Paula did harden, she did fight back and put some of the boys in their place, even as she experimented some with her own power, giving one boy a handjob in class in front of a particularly repressive teacher. Paula understands, however, that there was nothing she could do. Simply being female was enough to condemn her.
Where I grew up – and probably everywhere else – you were a slut or a tight bitch, one or the other, if you were a girl – and usually before you were thirteen. If you were good-looking; if you grew up fast. If you had a sexy walk; if you had clean hair, if you had dirty hair. If you wore platform shoes, and if you didn’t. Anything could get you called a slut. My father called me a slut the first time I put on mascara.
But Paula also realized that not only was she damned if she did, damned if she didn’t, she was capable of being both at the same time.
You were a slut if 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.
Throughout the book, we get little hints that despite the fact that life has beaten Paula down in most respects, her children – who they are, her relationship with them, and how they get along in the world – define her in ways that not even her alcoholism and status as the widow of an abuser can touch. Paula’s lot in life as a cleaner is not one she truly resents for the class implications of what it means to clean for other people, nor for the drudgery in such work. The only job she resents is the one that causes her to see what she perceives as her deficits as a mother.
The kids make shite of the house all week and I arrive on Fridays so they can start all over again on Saturday… It’s unbelievable. Marker and paint on the walls and fridge, dirty clothes on the stairs, crumbs and bits of stood-on sandwiches all over the place. They mustn’t do a stroke during the week. They wait for me. I even have to put the videos and CDs back into their boxes because the room would look untouched if I didn’t… It’s the only house I feel jealous in; the kids have everything. I know; I pick it up.
Doyle goes on to show how Paula learned from her mistakes from the eldest children, trying her best to be a good mother in spite of her alcoholism. One daughter dropped out of school, one son is an addict. Paula is determined her younger two children will have a different life. She oversees her younger daughter’s homework in a way she never did with her older two children, a luxury she has once she makes her abusive husband leave the house.
She concentrates and smiles; I can hear her brain working. Everything’s neat; straight margin, red biro, lovely writing dead on the line. I wonder where she got the brains from.
Maybe from me.
It’s also a minor revelation, this passage, as Doyle shows how hard Paula is trying to ensure her children have a better shot in life, but also shows how maybe Paula understands she is not the thick girl she was made to feel like she was in high school. Paula was made to feel stupid much of her life, but underneath the abuse, the poverty and the booze there is still a sign of the bright girl she once was. She vacillates back and forth in the book, between understanding her worth and believing she is nothing.
But Doyle does not let the reader have a romantic notion of Paula’s life. She wants the best for her children, but she has a hard time reconciling it with her own addictions. She restricts her drinking until after she sees her youngest son Jack off to bed, and simply reading him a bedtime story becomes a nightmare for her, filling her with rage and near-paranoia as every word in his bedtime story becomes an impediment between her and the drink she needs.
–The milkman’s bottles were clunking–
–Clinking, that’s right. –as he–
–You start again.
–The milkman’s bottles were clinking as he–
I can hardly see the words. Sometimes. My eyes are glueing. I have to scream. My joints are stuck. I’m in agony. I’m made of sore cement. I want to hit him, he’s so fuckin’ vigilant. Waiting for mistakes; the story means nothing to him. He doesn’t care about me.
Paula and her mother share much in common. Both seemed happy in their young marriages, but as time went on, the strain showed on both her mother and her father.
I looked at Mammy. It was strange and still is even though I’ve gone through the same amount of years myself: she was different… she was grinning away and concentrating and blocking out everything except the salads on the plates – and she looked miserable. She looked so sad…
It wasn’t just her. He was different too. He’d become a bitter little pill and a bully. He made rules now just to make us obey them, just to catch us out. He used to laugh a lot but now he couldn’t or wouldn’t and he hated hearing laughter in the house.
In the eyes of retrospect, Paula sees her marriage to Charlo for what it was – a girl seeking the approval of her cruel father by marrying a man just like him.
Charlo was right. It was pointless trying to please him; he’d never do it. Mind you, I didn’t fully realize then that Charlo wouldn’t have crossed the road to please anyone. Him and my father were very much alike. She said – twenty-one years later. The wise old woman of the bottle.
The self-centeredness of all the men in Paula’s life makes it hard for her to have any faith in good memory, to even have faith in the people she loved before they became difficult. Her father, who become more and more emotionally abusive as she got older erased her good memory of him.
(The man at the wedding has killed the other father I had when I was a girl. I can’t get at him any more. I can picture him, no problem, even smell him – but he isn’t my daddy. He’s another man. He’s not real. I don’t trust him or myself; I’m making him up. He couldn’t be the same man who was at my wedding, the same man who wouldn’t come to Nicola’s christening ten months later because he had a cold…)
Marrying a man like her father and the erosion of her memory of her father when she was a child are omens of what is to come with Nicola.
The story is told in flashback, the time line swerving as Paula hits on one memory, then the next. Her thoughts as she contemplates the crime that resulted in Charlo being shot by the police shows all too clearly the odd thought processes that some abused women go through, confusing pain with love, abuse with a concentration of affection.
He was so kind. He just lost his temper sometimes. He loved me. He bought me things. He bought me clothes. Why didn’t I wear them? Whack. But why did he whack poor Mrs. Fleming? He wasn’t married to her. He hit her twice. What happened?
I wanted none of the answers that started to breathe in me; I smothered them. They were all horrible. They were all just savage and brutal. Nasty and sick. They mocked my marriage, my love; they mocked my whole life.
But Paula knew the truth about Charlo and understood how being a victim to such a man worked, her status as his wife not being any exception to how he would treat all women.
But even so, Paula still does the mental calisthenics that happen when you simply want something to have turned out differently. Like a person in a car crash who wishes they had left seconds earlier or later to avoid the wreck, Paula looks at all the angles, trying to find a way to have avoided a life of abuse.
I was a young, attractive woman with a loving, attractive husband who was bringing home the bacon with a smile on his handsome face. I was loving and sexy and pregnant.
Then I was on the floor and that was the end of my life. The future stopped rolling in front of me. Everything stopped.
–Make your own fuckin’ tea.
That was what I said. That was what started it, what ended it. I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t said it, what would have happened if I’d gone over and put on the kettle.
–Make your own fuckin’ tea.
Me and my big mouth. I’d have made him his tea. And a cup for myself as well. We’d have sat in the living room, me in the armchair we’d got from one of his cousins and him on the floor. We’d have sat and chatted. He’d have made us another cup… But I’m only codding myself. I know it. It would have happened anyway. That fist was always coming towards me… But sometimes I can’t help thinking I could have avoided it, that I could have been cleverer.
Paula can never settle on one form of truth. She caused the abuse, she didn’t cause it because it was inevitable, she was a dunce, she’s intelligent, she’s a bad mother, she’s a decent mother. What seems like dithering is really a mind fragmented by years of abuse, of having no allies, of fearing being alone in life and knowing she had to act alone in order to end her abuse.
But more than that, Paula was defined by her relationship with Charlo. Every beating confirmed her existence.
I was only someone when he walked in. Because he looked at me. Because he smiled at me. Because he hit me.
Charlo beat Paula until she was sent to the emergency room many times, creating the lie that she was a woman who walked into doors. He beat her into a miscarriage. He burned money the family sorely needed in front of her to demoralize her. Her life became, simply, what he did to her.
But when Paula senses the abuse will turn against her daughter Nicola, she acts and acts without thinking and without hesitation. She bashes Charlo on the head with a heavy skillet and, with Nicola’s help, throws him out of the house. The moment between realization and action is brief, only seeming like a moment in retrospection.
He wanted to hurt my daughter. His daughter. Because he could. There was evil in him. I wasn’t going to pretend anymore. Things were falling apart and it didn’t matter. I looked at Nicola. She looked at me. Yes, her face said; you’re right, it’s happening. She looked embarrassed and guilty. What did I do? her face said. I’m sorry. Help
He started humming. The noise disgusted me. The humming made me do it. I grabbed the frying pan… I hit him on the side of the head with the pan. Nothing stopped me. I didn’t care about the damage or the noise; my arm let me.
The novel ends after Paula throws out Charlo, before he takes and kills a hostage in an attempted robbery, before he is killed by police and she is told she is a widow. We know from the sequence of the book that braining Charlo with a skillet does not transform Paula. She remains a desperate alcoholic, no matter how much she attempts to police herself. Domestic peace does not come down upon her home, as her son resents her throwing out his father and becomes an addict himself. She is still poor. Her life is still a daily trudge.
But she did it. She did the one thing her mother did not manage to do. She got rid of her abuser. She made a stand.
It was a great feeling. I’d done something good.
Sometimes in life, that is all you can hope for, that one moment when you know, without a doubt, that you have done the right thing, that you have done something good.
Such a brilliant book. Utterly true, unsentimental and still melancholy because you want Paula to win in life above and beyond getting rid of Charlo. You want her sober and full of life, the way she was when she was in her early teens, before a world of men ground her down. That you don’t get it is maddening, but it is also the mark of an honest writer, who tells of life without putting an artificial shine onto it. I recommend this book highly. For me, Roddy Doyle is a revelation and I cannot wait to read more of his work. In getting the Amazon link to this book, I realized he wrote a book called Paula Spencer. I also realize now Roddy Doyle wrote The Commitments. Ugh! I don’t often regret being the sort of person who doesn’t pay much attention to mainstream literature, but this time I do. Bless my own short, fat, Irish soul for missing out on him for so long.