They’ll win: two working class novels in Ireland

The two “Paula Spencer” novels by Roddy Doyle are fantastic read. They are not Cormack McCarthy good, or David Foster Wallace good, but very good nonetheless.

I think I liked the first better: The Woman Who Walked into Doors is about Paula Spencer from her teenage years until the age of 39. She grows up in a real tough working class neighborhood in Dublin of the ’70s. Shortly after her wedding, her husband starts beating her. If you ever want a description of how one becomes and endures being an abuse victim, the dual mentality of loving and hating the abuser, this is your novel. In addition, Paula is an alcoholic, which is another version of that dual mentality, knowing it’s bad, wanting desperately to stop, yet wanting a drink more than anything.

In the second, eponymously called Paula Spencer, we meet Paula almost ten years on. She’s 47 (49 by the end of the book), and this one is all about putting one’s life back together after so much has been broken. And above all, just keeping a balance in life, not falling off. Recovery from addiction being that fine balancing act.
What Doyle gets right in the book is how Paula’s life, despite being overwhelmingly only about keeping sober and her family together, does not end there. She still has her sights set on the world outside her extended household. She gets a gig cleaning an arena in Dublin where the White Stripes play, so she gets into them. We go back to the White Stripes several times in the book. She particularly likes the song I Want To Be The Boy To Warm Your Mother’s Heart.

In general Doyle embeds Paula very well in Ireland of the mid naughts of the twenty first century. All kinds of contemporary events are mentioned. One of which, I had to mention here. In the first book we learn that she paid for her older son, John Paul to get a Liverpool F.C. tattoo on his arm. He goes missing after becoming a heroin addict in that one; In Paula Spencer, the second book, she’s reconnecting with him. They’re sitting at a cafe, talking. This transpires.

The tattoo is still there, on his arm. The Liverpool thing. She paid for it years ago, for his fourteenth birthday. She thought it would work. She’d give him the tattoo and he’d forgive her and lover her for ever.
She points at his arm.
– D’you still like them, John Paul?
He doesn’t look down.
– They’re on the way back.
– Is that right? she says.
She’s not sure what he means.
– I’m thinking of going to Istanbul, he says.
– Why?
He smiles. She wants to grab his face.
– Champions League final, he says.
– Liverpool are in it? she says.
– Yeah.
– Ah, lovely. In Istanbul?
– Yeah.
– What if you go and they don’t win? It’d be terrible, so far away.
– They’ll win, says John Paul. 

(notice how wild the commentary gets)


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