The Woman Who Walked Into Doors
by Roddy Doyle
Penguin/ Viking. 228 pages. 1996. Fiction.
“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.
Working from a recording of the story is much harder for me than reading. It took much more discipline to settle into it, to really hear it. Music, TV, movies, all of that passes me by, but reading, yes, I can read and engage. The spoken word makes it much harder for me to keep track, make notes, find quotes and even when my eyes stayed closed, attention drifted.
That said, what impressions am I left with from listening to this short story? A visceral sense of narrator as a boy in the car with his dad driving through country lanes. Norden gave us such a detailed sensory description, sounds, movement of air, visuals, all of it really made me feel that as a writer, he put himself fully in this scene. I didn’t want it to end. The second half of the story didn’t connect me so well; it was as if the woman he loved was making him take us back into the physicality of that evening. It was a strange or different way to bring me as reader back into that evening with the boy and his dad and then his mum. Writer to narrator as adult to woman to narrator as child and back again.
Language in the first section was fluid, drawing me along by my senses and I stood at the kitchen counter sipping my seltzer to listen more carefully. There are the descriptions of the tires, heater, owls’ wings, the vibration of the engine as they sit there. Immediacy in the scene.
The second half was too detached for me, those distances and steps in the point of view disconnected me and it was hard to follow, to care enough to listen to the repetitive “I said, I said, I said.” There was little for me to hang on to. The woman in the bedroom brings the narrator back into his childhood bedroom asking for more and more details but I didn’t really get a sense of her at all, just her ‘hmm’ in reaction to his story.
Lastly the ending disappointed me. After reading Bambara, I craved that concrete last image to hold onto. A philosophical statement of how there’s “great pain in all love” didn’t satisfy.
On looking back, it was interesting to see the play in perspectives and to notice how much I appreciated the details that took me into the car with him.
Was it real or imagined? Did the narrator claim the story? No, he wavered in his memory of that moment, and that made me sad. “It’s possible that I made the whole thing up.”
Well, yes and no. Perhaps it’s my sadness or his split in perspective that trips me up? I don’t know. Tricky. Interesting to read this short pieces as we are, slowing down, looking into the craft deliberately.
My Man Bovanne
by Toni Cade Bambara
I love the simplicity of this evening with Mama and how something as simple as a dance with this man Bovanne brings up all these layers of interrelationships. The language isn’t mine, it’s not my culture or a life or expectations that I know except from stories like these and so it surprises me how familiar it also felt.
One of impressions that struck me was that universality of how children grow up and think they know better than their parents. I was one of those kids and I wish at this age I could apologise to Mum and Dad but it’s too late. So yes, it struck me hard but I also sensed how Mama understands and doesn’t take it on although there are a few lines with such a poignancy like when the daughter Elo puts her hand on her mama’s shoulder. “the hand landin light and not sure it was supposed to be there. Which hurt me to my heart.”
Bambara’s language is so wonderfully straightforward and simple. You can hear her voice, her innocence and her mischief. “Is this what they call the generation gap?”
I like how she sees herself, this Mama, talking of how she’s not “old old. I can still wear me some sleeveless dresses without the mean hangin off my arm.”
Her characters are all clearly described in such a short story, it’s inspiring and I have to slow down to read it to find out how, how did Bambara do this so quickly?
Language and voice of each son and daughter, each one is defined as much by speech as dress. Task is tight, upright is his sentences, with controlled orders in a sense. He tells her about the Reverend and how “You were supposed to be talking with him tonight.”
Her response is perfect; “If grass roots mean you kept in the dark.”
The voice of the story is light, strong, and conversational. It’s very approachable and brings the sad simple truth of how kids forget to treasure their parents, that intimacy and care of a mother is just lost as they reach adulthood.
The narrator is funny, sad with that universal truth, but funny. She took me by surprise when she said “I ain’t been suther than Brooklyn Battery and no more country thatn the window box on the fireescape.” Yes, I’d seen her as Southern, so there goes that assumption of mine! I learn to slow down, read thoroughly, not just for the story.
I also came away with an understanding of a powerful of the last image. That final paragraph fit the checklist we’d talked of last week, how it’s a chance to show the New Life, see how the characters live after that change or confrontation. Here she claims her appreciation of herself as a woman and he as a man, and how age doesn’t matter. There’s also a nice ‘fuck you’ to her kids’ calling her a hussy and how when Bovanne complements her, she says, yes, I am beautiful.
There’s a bluntness, a lightness, and such a strong voice here.