Review: The Woman Who Walked into Doors by Roddy Doyle

Reading Ireland Month 2019: Book 2

I misread this title. I mistook it for something whimsical or slightly fantastic, but the first chapter reminded me that walking into doors is a euphemism for domestic violence. Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked into Doors isn’t the cheeriest book, but it’s well-written so I recommend it anyway. It has a unique cadence, so an actor with a good voice could turn the audiobook into genuine art.

The book begins with Paula Spencer, a 39-year-old alcoholic, letting a Guard into her home. He’s plainly there to deliver bad news, but the reader doesn’t immediately learn the cause. The next chapter flashes back to when Paula met Charlo, her ex-husband, and the story moves backwards and forwards through time to narrate Paula’s childhood, how she fell in lust/love with Charlo, and his abuse during their marriage. The only time the writing falters is when describing her adolescence. This section is initially strong, but it rambles. Doyle’s style of repetition and circling back works better for the bigger moments of the story and over-emphasizing too many tiny moments throws off the balance.

Slivers of warmth and humor keep the book from collapsing beneath its own depressing weight. Paula’s relationship with her siblings is complicated, but the way they bicker feels genuine. When they reminisce over the past, they interrupt each other to quibble over details. The snippet below between Paula and her sister, Carmel, also shows Roddy’s unique way of writing dialogue with em dashes instead of quotation marks. I prefer quotation marks, but the em dashes work well in this book since the overall style is punchy and jumps around:

—I remember it alright, said Carmel.
She sat up, the way she does when she’s getting going.
—I was sixteen—
—You were not, I said.
—I was, she said.—I was working.
—I was only eleven, I told her.—So you could only have been fourteen. At the most.
—Listen, she said.—I’ll tell my version and then you can tell your pack of lies. Anyway, Denise, this brasser here was waiting for me when I got homeFrom work.
What work? I said.
—Shut up. She was waiting in the hall for me. I opened the door and there she was. Carmil, she says. Carmil.
We laughed. She’s good at doing children, the face and hands and all. You can tell by the way Carmel imitates kids that she loves them. (77)

The writing tightens considerably in the second half to shape a brutal portrait of alcoholism. As Paula’s drinking worsens, she makes a daily promise to herself to lock up the alcohol, throw the key in the yard, and not drink until the kids are in bed. This leads to a nightly panic of scrabbling for the key in the dark. She holds out as long as she can, but it always ends the same way:

The ads come on.
—It’s over now, Jack. Bed.
—It’s not over. It’s the ads.
He’s right. I want to kill him.
—Bed. I say.—Come on.
Nicola looks at me. She knows.
It’s the rule: I don’t drink till he’s gone to bed. He’s going to fuckin’ bed. Loads of tears—another look from Nicola—but I don’t care. I do care. I’m lying, I’m cheating. I’m mistreating Jack. I know, I know. But I’m doing it anyway. It’s not a life or death thing, I’m only sending him to bed early, I need a fuckin’ drink! It’s not fair, it’s not fair. It’s been a long day, I’ve been very good. Now it’s my turn. I won’t drink till he’s in bed so that’s where I’m bringing him.
I don’t cheat on that. I go up the stairs with him. He leads the way; we go at his pace.
—I’ll read you a story, don’t worry.
Not just because I feel guilty either; I read him a story every night. Every night. No matter how desperate I am, shaking, in pain—I won’t be able to find the key, it’ll be too dark—I read Jack a story. No short cuts; I read every page. Jack knows every word. He stops me whenever I’m wrong and makes me start the sentence again.
—The milkman’s bottles were clunking—
—No; clinking.
—Clinking. That’s right.—as he—
—You start again.
—The milkman’s bottles were clinking as he—
I can hardly see the words. Sometimes. My eyes are glueing. I have to scream. My joints are stuck. I’m in agony. I’m made of sore cement. I want to hit him, he’s so fuckin’ vigilant. Waiting for mistakes; the story means nothing to him. He doesn’t care about me.
But I finish. I always finish. (112-113)

When I said this novel was written in a punchy, jumpy style, I meant that as a compliment. The frenetic way Paula’s narration hops around conveys her desperation better than any long, lyrical passage. I don’t typically like this style of writing and I don’t typically finish books that are this depressing, but the combination of style and subject makes it hard to put down the book.. After tucking in Jack, Paula finds the key, and drinks until she passes out. Her voice and attitude become more and more fragmented, teetering between satisfaction and guilt. It’s an absolutely brilliant passage.

Note: There’s one chapter near the end that’s difficult to read. It’s a litany of abuses that Paula suffered at Charlo’s hands. Because the reader was given an outline of this abuse early, it’s sickening to now read it all at once.

Overall: 4.6 (out of 5) Doyle does an amazing job of capturing Paula’s voice, but the pacing isn’t always strong. When describing her adolescence, he has a few good paragraphs, repeats them less effectively, then repeats them again. Once the narrative locks onto Paula’s family, marriage, and drinking, it’s more compelling. There is a sequel, but I’m not sure I can read it unless I know it has a happy ending.

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