Paula Spencer - the battered, alcoholic "woman who walked into doors" - returns in Roddy Doyle's captivating new novel nine years older, much hard-won wisdom wiser and four months and five days off the booze. Approaching 48, and still suburbs away from Easy Street, she's miles ahead of where she was at 39. Widowhood, though lonely and sexless, is preferable to the terror of life with Charlo, the husband she adored and feared, who beat her viciously and then escorted her to hospital.
If you haven't already, it's worth reading the earlier novel first. Doyle does gloss Paula's background, her complex relationships with her sisters and children. But her personality, motivations, behaviours and habits of thinking have been so carefully, so tenderly evolved that, if you hold your breath through her earlier struggle for survival, you will appreciate her series of small - yet heroic - successes in the new novel that much more. It's like watching a real person getting a white-knuckled grasp on themselves, on day-to-day life and on their relationships.
You want to cheer Paula on every egg, carrot and salmon-steak of the way as the door of her new huge fridge-freezer opens onto more and more food. At one triumphant moment, "She takes the waffles from the freezer. There are eight left in the box, and three more days to payday. She's two waffles ahead."
It's not only more food: it's more variety, too. Paula's sense of taste, dulled by drink and abuse, is returning - as is her passion for unlikely music. Her growing material well-being and developing adventurousness reflect and foster her burgeoning sense of self. Over the book, she starts regaining the confidence drubbed out of her well before Charlo first raised his fist. Her progress through a series of family dramas is far from steady, but it's as tangible as the proper coffee served in the new Italian café. The neighbourhood is on the up and Paula's going with it.
By the end, we've been in her company for just over a year. She's starting to trust herself, her gift for truthfulness beginning to temper her heavy sense of guilt. And most important for her self-esteem, she's beginning to offer her children and sisters emotional support instead of draining it from them. In contrast to its predecessor, which staggered punch-drunk between times past and present, the new novel takes us straight through this year-in-the-life of its heroine. Straight, but with a kind of stop-motion writing: there are no linking phrases to ease the reader across the months. It keeps you on your toes, just as Paula has to keep on hers: if her attention lapses, she could end up losing the plot.
As ever, Doyle's dialogue is pithy, his mordant comedy direct and delicious. Another of the sheer pleasures of Doyle's writing is his lightness of touch, the way he keeps out of his characters' paths. All moral judgments are made by the characters and are invariably in character. We're allowed to get Paula, her story, and what it means, without anything underlined, emboldened or signposted. No aids for the thinking-impaired here: just pure story and a superbly drawn heroine, ready to face life, mobile phone in hand, White Stripes on the stereo, fridge bursting with food.
Lisa Gee's 'Friends' is published by BloomsburyReuse content