Struggling out of the abyss

21 November 2006

Paula Spencer
Roddy Doyle

Jonathan Cape £16.99
CT Bookshop £15.30

A moving and intense novel about recovery from addiction

READING Paula Spencer took me back to my most intense Irish experience, when a tinker family on their way to a funeral took over my Ryanair flight to Knock. Jokes, shouted conversation, and Irishisms fuelled by alcohol filled the cabin.

At times, Roddy Doyle’s vivid but occasionally relentless evocation of Paula Spencer’s family life reminded me of that hilarious and maddening flight. The difference is that his characters clutch at mind and heart.

Paula Spencer is an alcoholic, living with an emotionally damaged daughter, Leanne, and a son, Jack, who’s “a good kid — he’s grown up minding Paula”. Paula has recently given up alcohol, and also learned that her eldest son, whom she hadn’t seen for two years, is no longer a heroin addict. John Paul has made the odyssey that Paula is just beginning.

Her addiction was total, and left her life wrecked: “She didn’t start at the bottom. It was hard work get-ting there.” That thought is typical of Paula — funny-agonising. It’s a hard journey ahead, but on her birthday she makes a first move: she buys a battery for the kitchen wall-clock. “She washed the sides and the glass, and she put it back on the wall.”

She has always worked as a cleaner, but now the money stays in her purse to spend on home and family. She opens her first bank account. Small steps, but crucial.

The temptation to drink again never goes away; as her sisters knock back glass after glass, she clings somehow to her teetotal state. Her determination becomes magnificent. When she nearly falls, it is unbearable.

The reader is drawn into her heroic struggle by Doyle’s semi-stream-of-consciousness style, its plainness lifting Paula Spencer’s moments of joy into intense epi-phanies. When she realises Leanne is healing, tears come to her eyes. “She’s not really crying. It’s a burst of — it is — happiness. The tears don’t flow. It’s over, really, before it starts. Like a sneeze, from the eyes.”

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