November 2006

Shaun Manning


Paula Spencer by Roddy Doyle

Following up on his 1996 novel The Woman Who Walked into Doors, Roddy Doyle revisits the life of Paula Spencer, now four months sober but still struggling to atone for the damage she's done her family. As in his other novels, Doyle handles the rather weighty premise and emotionally complex situations with delicate skill and a good deal of humour. In the end, the result is that the reader not only sympathizes with Paula Spencer, but also genuinely likes her, and her entire misfit brood as well.

Paula Spencer is set nine years after the titular heroine's debut, and as Paula recovers from her own ordeal, she is constantly confronted by the lasting effects of her alcoholism. Her youngest son Jack doesn't trust her and watches his mother for signs of a relapse. Her oldest son, John Paul, has only now returned to Paula's life, having run away from home as a teenager during his own battle with addiction. Nicola mothers her mother, a situation that makes no one happy. And Leanne, still living at home, takes after Paula in her devotion to drink. On this field, Paula must balance between protecting her children from repeating her mistakes while acknowledging her irrevocable failure in their lives, and she must do all of this without falling back into the abyss herself.

Doyle adopts a particular style for Paula Spencer, a staccato rhythm fitting for a person living moment-to-moment. Short, simple sentences and the repetition of self-affirmation (“she's grand”) gives the impression of cataloguing the important, mundane bits of the day, and holding things together when things get complicated. It's a task-oriented style, largely omitting the characters' desires in favour of describing what's happening, what comes next, and the perhaps dubious state of Paula's disposition. The style is not beautiful, but it is remarkably effective in conveying the tone of the book, and allows situations to unfold one bullet point at a time.

Another curious choice is that there are no chapter divisions, and while there are occasional section breaks these do not function as we would expect. Hours or entire days might pass between paragraphs, with Doyle regularly jumping from a moment before Paula leaves for work to the moment she returns home, while sentences on either side of a section break may occur much closer together. The chronology is thus compressed by jumping from event to event, while allowing space for more significant episodes to develop from different perspectives.

Paula is having a rough time of things, but there's also a good deal of hope in her story. She's on the mend. She's working as an office cleaner, earning a promotion at that. She tidies houses on the side, giving her more money that she's had in ages. Her children might not ever forgive her past, but they still accept Paula in their lives for the present. Paula Spencer is not the story of a life bogged down in tragedy or a sentimental look at overcoming addiction, but rather an examination of how one woman finds her place in a ruined life, accepting it for what it is and making of it what she can. And she's got a sense of humour about it all. Paula goes to a White Stripes concert, learns to use the Internet, helps Jack escape a spiteful schoolteacher's retribution, and brings little treats to grandchildren who barely know her, greeting each situation with a clever remark, and deciding that it's all grand.

Paula Spencer by Roddy Doyle
ISBN: 0670038164
288 Pages