We gave it a B+
Roddy Doyle’s last novel was revelatory — a first-person account of what it’s like to be a young boy in a disintegrating home. The Booker Prize-winning Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha offered readers the very marrow of childhood in a new voice at once wrenching, funny, and free of sentimentality. His new novel, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, a first-person account of what it’s like to be a 39-year-old alcoholic battered wife who unexpectedly becomes a widow, is not revelatory; the book sprang from a Doyle-scripted TV miniseries that is said to have shocked viewers in his native Ireland with its unprecedentedly frank portrayal of domestic abuse. On this side of the Atlantic, where everyone from Alice Walker to Stephen King to Farrah Fawcett to Jenny Jones has tested their talents against this topic, Doyle’s portrayal of a husband routinely brutalizing his wife in the kitchen is, sad to say, old news.
Old news, however, that’s very much worth reading, since Doyle’s gift for transforming mundane details into vivid truths remains fully in evidence. In The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, Doyle (whose trilogy of novels about a working-class Irish family spawned the films The Commitments and The Snapper) slips with complete ease into the run-down soul of Paula Spencer, a mother of four who has been pummeled by booze and fists into a life of rueful self-loathing. He creates a woman who can’t wait to finish reading Winnie the Pooh to her 5-year-old son so that she can hit the bottle, and makes you ache for her without for a moment excusing her behavior. He jumps between Paula’s present bereavement, her grade school days, her honeymoon, her childhood, and her work as a cleaning lady, and makes it seem as natural as the flow of a rattled mind trying to put itself in order. And he uses his taste for scabrous humor and his unrivaled ear for spoken language to make her plight as vivid as if she were your neighbor.
Only in Doyle’s final chapters does his ability to make his characters universal undermine the book; the language of abuse is so familiar that as she recounts her miseries in talk-show-testimonial style, Paula — so fascinatingly specific until now — sounds, unfortunately, just like everyone else. B+