“I knew before he spoke.”
The first paragraph in this heartbreaking novel by Doyle brings us immediately into a state of anxiety, a tension that underlies the whole book. Paula tells of her childhood and her marriage, at first in a contented tone, one that pulls us in to her world in Dublin in the seventies. There are layers though and her throwaway asides and digressions hint at a darker truth to even the simple fact that her husband Charlo was shot by the Garda. Why did they? Why wasn’t she surprised? The story within this story is one of love, family, and her determination to regain a sense of dignity.
The simple tale of childhood in poverty, a young marriage to a charming and violent man, and the slide into alcoholism is nothing new yet Doyle gives us such a convincing and likeable narrator that we read on. Paula describes a world most of us don’t know. Flashbacks fill in the details and build up into a story of family loyalty, family fights, an acceptance of the worst another can be and a sense of her all powerful and long-lasting love for Charlo and her kids.
The style is familiar using flashbacks, hints, repetitions and it’s done well, convincingly. There are such long digressions that we’re surprised to come to the end, having been caught up in the narrative and they are so true to real conversations we follow along, unquestioning: It’s how people really do talk.
And Doyle doesn’t hold back. We do ignore abuse, bruises, accidents that bring us back to the hospital over and over, the doctors avoiding her eyes, letting the husband stay right next her, answer for her. And Paula just wanted someone to ask. “Ask me, ask me,” is her lament, her wish that someone had asked and it had changed her life for that one question. But no. No one asks.
Doyle subtly hints at darker truths throughout the novel right from the first page, “He wasn’t one I’d seen before, on the usual ones,” says Paula at seeing the Garda at the door. Her language is simple and true for one who barely left school with any education, and she describes realizing that “it was a fright finding out that I was stupid.” Her new school was tough on kids, kids bullying each other, punching each other, and she’d stepped up, not going to let anyone mess her around. She fought back. Then.
Her first sight of Charlo, first time at a dance with him, she talks of him smoking, it was “Gorgeous”, and his smoke “pushed the old smoke out the way.” How telling. Later on, Paula talks of their wedding day, the first time round it sounds idyllic, and then the second round of memories the tension seeps in, the sadness.
Paula is likeable, it’s hard to understand why considering some of the things she admits to, but we do, we care and by the time the hard stuff hits us we’re with her fully, completely and that’s the magic of Doyle’s portrayal. She’s messed up, fighting her kids, being trashed by her husband, trying to stop drinking so much and we’re with her, rooting for her. The instance of him eating his chips out of her knickers is strangely delightful, a moment of play between the two of them.
The dialogue is true, honest and painful, and we believe her, in her. Doyle breaks it up for us, it’s not one long depressing slide into anxiety but we’re caught up in the ride, “I had good friends, a whole gang.” There are moments of mischief as she delights in her power as a sexual woman, how she drove him crazy, played it up, and laughed with her friends. Her stories of reading Winnie the Pooh made me laugh, “Christopher Robin is always giving parties. It’s well for him, the little prick: he doesn’t have to pay for them.”
There are moments that delight and others when you have to breathe in and hold on.
This novel isn’t for everyone but it could be, should be, men and women, we should all read it.
Doyle writes with humor, a poignancy, and lightness that carries us along within the shadows, hoping for the best and leaving with a deep exhale in relief: “It was a great feeling. I’d done something good.”
She had. There’s hope. Dignity.
The Woman Who Walked Into Doors
by Roddy Doyle
Penguin/ Viking. 228 pages. 1996. Fiction.