Paula Spencer by Roddy Doyle

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The Independent Culture

You have to be at least as famous as Roddy Doyle before you start choosing titles such as Paula Spencer for your books. I have seen Jonathan Livingston Seagull filed under S in bookshops and Adam Bede under Biography, E; it's certainly not a trick you'd want to pull for your first sally to the public presses.

And yet it's hard to think of a better title, at once unpretentious and forthright, for this quiet gem of a novel. When Doyle's readers last encountered Paula Spencer she was The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, widowed of an abusive husband and trying simultaneously to meet the demands of her young family and her full-blown alcoholism. This novel picks up the thread nine years on, and the title measures the change in tone and content. This is not a book about a victim. It's about recovery, consolidation and the stubborn strength that welds people back together.

Paula Spencer is 48, hasn't had a drink for four months and five days and works as a cleaner in Dublin. She doesn't have a bank account or a passport, but thinks she might like both, and get them, sooner or later. After nearly two decades of abuse and alcoholism, she somehow still has a family. Leanne, her 22-year-old daughter, and Jack, her 16-year-old son, live with her, but she worries about Leanne and the booze. Nicola, her eldest, who is "much, much more than she's supposed to be", is married with children but worries about Paula and the booze. Her son John Paul, a recovered smack addict with a family of his own, has just got back in touch. Immigrants are flooding into Ireland from the newly-acceded EU states. The Pope is on his last legs. It is 2005.

Paula Spencer is a novel about waking up. It's about the impact of the everyday on someone whose life has been anything but everyday; about the taste and smell and feeling of the things that most people take for granted. Paula, says Doyle, will "never get over the terror of having no money, the prison of having nothing. Putting things back up on supermarket shelves because the tenner in her pocket turned out to be a fiver." Doyle shows us how each action and object furnishes his protagonist's life, whether buying a cake from the new Italian café ("There's nothing that's just round and normal-looking"), her first mobile phone, a promotion at work, posh oven-bake canapés from Tesco or a hi-fi and the new U2 CD. Each marks another step along the way to independence and security.

Such a premise could easily descend into the homespun banalities of the Hornby-Parsons axis, or into the lachrymose self-pity of so many books about recovery. Not here. Paula is a triumphantly original character, and her gently anarchic sense of humour, her ruthless honesty and the bursting sense of fun that permeates the book scotch any hint of sentimentalism. Doyle, meanwhile, constructs his set-pieces and orders the narrative with a craft so unobtrusively elegant and clever that it demands a second reading. This is a splendid piece of work.

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