Just as the comic quality of Roddy Doyle’s first three novels—his Barrytown trilogy—did not prepare readers for the unrelieved grimness of PADDY CLARKE HA HA HA, winner of the 1993 Booker Prize, neither do the devastating but nevertheless relatively small-scale cruelties of the latter quite prepare readers for the pervasive despair and domestic violence recounted in Doyle’s latest (and best) novel. For all its gritty details of life among Dublin’s underclass, THE WOMAN WHO WALKED INTO DOORS goes well beyond documentary realism to create a sense of tragic inevitability in a culture insidiously bent on reproducing its worst features. A “sucker for romance,” Paula O’Leary discovers just how limited her future is as soon as she enters technical high school, where she is typecast academically and reduced to choosing between two sexual roles, slut or tight bitch. Not surprisingly, Paula gravitates toward an “elegant” young thug named Charlo Spencer who offers her the relative protection of “respectability.” Soon after they wed, Paula becomes pregnant and Charlo begins first to neglect, then to abuse her. To make matters worse, Charlo is aided and abetted by Paula’s culturally induced sense of guilt and worthlessness and a medical community all too willing to blame Paula for her injuries.
A simple rendering of Paula’s life would make compelling, albeit horrific, reading, but what makes her story, and Doyle’s novel, so affecting derives as much from the manner in which it is told. Paula contends, in typically self-lacerating fashion, that “It’s all a mess—there’s no order or sequence.” True enough, but her narrative actually gains power from its apparent shapelessness, guilt-ridden confession merging with self-therapy, her act of recovery eventually erupting into accusation and a litany of abuse suffered and damage done.
There are, however, limits to what Paula is willing or, after all the beatings, drinking, and Valium, even able to remember. Her story ends in a triumph of sorts, in her having (as she puts it) “done something good” in finally throwing Charlo out. Yet it is a triumph complicated not only be the extent of the physical and psychological damage (and not just to Paula, who has “lost all of my friends and most of my teeth”) but by uncertainty. As Nicola, the eldest of her children says then, two years before Paula begins telling her survivor’s tale (presumably to herself) and one before Charlo is killed by police after killing a woman in a botched kidnapping, “What now?”
Sources for Further Study
Chicago Tribune. April 14, 1996, XIV, p. 3.
Commonweal. CXXIII, October 11, 1996, p. 21.
Library Journal. CXXI, February 15, 1996, p. 174.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 5, 1996, p. 3.
New Statesman and Society. IX, May 3, 1996, p. 41.
The New York Times Book Review. CI, April 28, 1996, p. 7.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, January 22, 1996, p. 57.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, March 25, 1996, p. 55.
The Spectator. CCLXXVI, March 30, 1996, p. 27.
The Times Literary Supplement. April 12, 1996, p. 24.
The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, April 7, 1996, p. 1.
World Press Review. XLIII, July, 1996, p. 37.
In the three novels which make up Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown trilogy—The Commitments (1987), The Snapper (1990), and The Van (1991)—straitened lives are tempered by humor as the author allows the limited aspirations of his characters, the members of the Rabbitte family in particular, to rise, however briefly, even absurdly, over the still more limiting circumstances of their North Dublin working-class existence. Doyle’s Booker Prize-winning Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1993) is also set in Barrytown but tells an altogether grimmer story tempered not by humor this time but by the author’s filtering his...
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