Can sobriety restore the children's love?
There's less drama but plenty of humanity in Roddy Doyle's sequel to 'The Woman Who Walked Into Doors.'
It's a pity the title "Ordinary People" was already taken. Paula Spencer would have worn it with pride.
The abused, alcoholic wife from Roddy Doyle's acclaimed 1996 novel "The Woman Who Walked Into Doors" gets a second book named after her, and this time, her name stands alone.
Twelve years after her murderous husband was shot by police, Paula Spencer is still cleaning houses by day and offices at night. But she's now four months and five days into a hard-won sobriety, and is determined to set her life – and her relationship with her children – to rights.
Her oldest, Nicola, has fought her way into middle-class respectability and now mothers her mother – checking up on Paula and giving her appliances.
"How to make a poor woman feel poorer? Buy her a big fridge. Fill that, loser," Paula thinks in her wonderful, wry way, staring at Nicola's present.
But "she's proud to have a daughter who can fling a little money around. The pride takes care of the humiliation, every time. Kills it stone dead."
John-Paul, a recovering heroin addict with two kids, has gotten back in touch after years of silence. His attitude toward Paula isn't exactly the prodigal son returning home – it's more the wary stance of a parole officer faced with a violent offender.
Then there's teenage Jack, Paula's beloved baby, who's the only one who doesn't remember the worst years.
Most heartbreakingly, Leanne, who as a little girl valiantly tried to protect her "mammy" from her dad, now has picked up both her mother's drinking and her dad's abusive ways.
The first novel took its title from Paula's favorite excuse, the one she used to cover up the black eyes and broken fingers her husband shelled out over the course of 17 years, during which she developed a painful type of invisibility: "I could see all these people but they couldn't see me. They could see the hand that held out the money... They could see the mouth that spoke the words. They could see the hair that was being cut. But they couldn't see me. The woman who wasn't there. The woman who had nothing wrong with her. The woman who was fine. The woman who walked into doors."
The unadorned Paula Spencer suits the quieter nature of the new novel. There's no great cathartic scene as in the first, when Paula catches her husband eyeing their daughter Nicola, picks up a frying pan, and literally kicks him out of her life.
Also, by exchanging first-person narrative for third-person, Doyle (who, in 1993, was awarded the Booker prize for the novel "Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha") forgoes the literary flash ("Look! A man who can write women!") in favor of precisely observed moments. Like the first book, though, the sequel still unfolds primarily through dialogue and interior monologue.
Over the course of a year, Paula gets a promotion, makes soup, buys Christmas presents, cleans her daughter's room, hangs out with her sisters, discovers the Internet and a fondness for The White Stripes, and tries very, very hard not to drink.
During the decade that Paula has been scrubbing floors and picking up garbage, her country has changed around her, and Doyle details the impact the roaring "Celtic Tiger" and relaxed immigration laws have on even those who can't afford the new luxuries. For her birthday, Paula treats herself to a visit to a new Italian cafe, and Doyle makes the trip more memorable than a spree at Tiffany's. When she and her neighbor, Rita, pass a store named "Pride and Joy," Rita says that she knew the country was changing when the first kids' clothing shops opened.
"They were the proof, said Rita. – People had more money than they needed. It's great. I noticed them before all the new cars, said Rita. – And the talk about house prices. Even all the cranes."
Paula's response: "All I noticed was the price of vodka going up."
Sobriety hasn't swiped Paula's sense of humor. If anything, she's had to hone it more sharply to compensate for the lack of liquor.
"She comes home from work on the Dart on Thursday nights, on Fridays, surrounded by gin fumes, Guinness fumes. She's the only solid citizen on the train. It's how she copes. If you can't join them, beat them. She quite likes it, feeling superior. She sits on the Dart and tut-tut-tuts."
There's nothing easy, however, about taking sobriety one day at a time, and Doyle makes it clear that it's a mighty thin tightrope that Paula is walking much of the time.
She opens a bank account at a branch two miles from home to put some distance between herself and her savings. She hesitates to get a bank card.
"Does she trust herself? Not today. It's not about money. It's about being careful. She has to be careful. For the rest of her life. It's killing her."
But given that this is the same woman who 10 years ago could only hold off drinking until her youngest was in bed by locking the alcohol in the shed and throwing the key out into a dark garden, readers will be glad to cheer Paula on. And they'll share her delight in being able to sit in a cafe without the staff eyeing her warily.
Paula's kids, however, aren't ready to throw her a parade after a few months on the wagon. It would take a lake of homemade soup to make up for years of neglect. While Doyle throws in a possible romantic interest for Paula (a man she meets at the bottle return, a retired civil servant with neatly polished shoes, three grandchildren, a mobile home in Wexford, and "something steady" about him), the real love story is the one between the mother and her children.
"She loves her children," Paula tells herself. "That's easy to think. Easy to believe and say. Of course she does. She loves them. But she has to be able to point. That's my daughter. That's my son. There has to be pride. Who'd want to point at Paula and shout, 'That's my mother? There's no reason why any of her kids would do that. She has no right to expect it. She doesn't expect it."
But perhaps she will be able to earn it. Sobriety is a slow and steady process and while chronicling it gives "Paula Spencer" less of a dramatic arc than the one that enlivened "The Woman Who Walked Into Doors," the stakes in the sequel – redemption and forgiveness – are every bit as high.
• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.