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One fray at a time

Roddy Doyle's protagonist, recovering from abuse and addiction, takes on the small battles of daily life

Paula Spencer
By Roddy Doyle
Viking, 281 pp., $24.95

Ever since the international success of two early novels, "The Commitments" and "Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha," Irish writer Roddy Doyle has been celebrated as a contemporary master of the funny and profane. But it was his brutally acute 1996 novel, "The Woman Who Walked Into Doors," that testified to Doyle's abilities as a minimalist observer of life's treacheries. In capturing the interior anguish and resolve of a battered woman with a drinking problem, the novel was a triumph of voice -- a first-person cri de coeur that gave us a soliloquy of dirty nappies, empty bottles, and reasons not to go on. Paula Spencer, with her broken body and her broken heart, was an anti-Molly Bloom. And Doyle's sympathetic portrait was made all the more wrenching by his understated prose. "No hope to give them," Paula thinks about her four children. "They saw him throw me across the kitchen." By the end of the novel, you could feel the chill on your own neck when he reached for her.

So now there is "Paula Spencer," even the title of her namesake novel suggesting that there will be something to celebrate, something that endured. She is 47 now, a few months sober, and half out of her mind with longing for the drink that helped her forget. It's a little more than a decade since her husband shot and killed a kidnap victim, and was in turn killed by the Guard, events chronicled in Paula's previous novel. These days she's cleaning houses and apartment buildings, trying to make the paychecks last long enough to fill the fridge, or at least buy milk and cornflakes. The children are all but grown, but because this is a family still reeling, however silently, under the legacies of violence and booze, their ages matter less than their memories. Or lack of them, as Leanne, the daughter in the most trouble, tells Paula.

" 'But thinking back,' " Paula asks her, the statement a question. " 'About your daddy.'

" ' I don't.'

" 'At all?'

" 'No.' "

Such forced amnesia hasn't helped much. Leanne, now 22, lives at home with Jack, her 15-year-old brother, and their mother; the young woman has her own drinking problem, and on bad nights has a touch of the abuser; Jack treads silently through the house and his life trying to avoid anything much beyond his own breath. What Paula has -- what she has resurrected -- is honesty: "That's what she owns now."

That and a suitcase full of ache and regret, only partly eased by doing the right thing, in tiny increments, on the days she is able. She makes the soup, visits the sisters, climbs the stairs to another back-breaking job, tries to throw out Leanne's empties without licking the glass. It is a dour life but a noble one, at least if good intentions can outweigh the past. Every day it's there to remind Paula, her body "a map of his abuse," her thoughts a mix of guilt and fear and just a piece of relief.

"Paula Spencer" takes place over the course of a year, steeped in the quotidian details of Paula's life and the small victories of that state called normal . But unlike "The Woman Who Walked Into Doors," this novel unfolds in the third person; the labyrinths of Paula's inner narrative, so meticulously rendered in her first story, here feel abbreviated and grimly laconic -- a shorthand that seems more of an authorial failing than a character revelation. If "The Woman Who Walked Into Doors" was an act of dramatic brilliance, with even its margins carrying the bone-white cold of domestic abuse, its sequel is oddly empty. It relies on the time scale of real life, and because Paula's is one of Sisyphean effort, it's packed with repetitive facts: late-night buses and bad television shows and grown children's unspoken sorrows. A certain technical sloppiness doesn't help to break this airless pall: Doyle switches scenes without warning or reason, or with a mere "it's later now" -- more stage direction than novelistic device.

Still, there are elements of "Paula Spencer" to be applauded . And the surrounding stories of Paula's children ache with authenticity: Her oldest son, John Paul, is a recovering heroin addict whose every move is one of careful deliberation, the needle having taught him how narrow his road of safety really is. Nicola, the girl who witnessed the worst of it when her father was alive, has become a high-functioning caretaker trapped by her own involuntary nurturing. And Leanne, all the more poignant because of her off-putting behavior, is the troubled adult with no resources of any kind -- the grown-up version of "the little girl who'd danced around the kitchen, trying to distract her father, trying to charm him away from her mother's broken body." Dancing for her life, in other words, and then paying for the rest of it.

The sequel in literature has garnered a reputation, often undeserved, of being cursed: a tired or inferior second hand effort that lacks the requisite momentum of the "new." But "Paula Spencer" didn't have to suffer such indictments: Its protagonist is a phoenix still half-covered in ash, and that itself suggests a story of both flight and atonement. Doyle's dialogue can be masterfully swift and precise: "The good things kind of glide past you," Paula's sister tells her. "You can take them for granted. But the bad things, the regrets. They [expletive deleted] sting."

That they do, which makes flickers of grace all the more haunting. Paula's comes when she realizes Jack knows how to tell directions: that he can instinctively point west toward the sea, or south toward the brightest light. "She couldn't remember the last time she'd learnt something." This moment is a marvel to Paula, so humbled by her life and so set on getting through. If Doyle had cared as much about her now as he did a decade ago -- well, as Paula would say, that might have been grand.

Gail Caldwell is chief book critic of the Globe. She can be reached at

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