Unusual Heroine

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Review of 'Paula Spencer', Roddy Doyle, Jonathan Cape £16.99

The film adaptation of Roddy Doyle's novel The Commitments brought his Barrytown trilogy - The Commitments, The Van and The Snapper - to a wide audience. In 1994 the four-part television series Family stirred much controversy with a very different view of modern Dublin.

Each episode centred on one member of the Spencer family living in the poverty and chaos of a sink estate. Alcoholism, teenagers addicted to glue, domestic violence and a brutal set of state institutions bearing down on a family at breaking point - clearly not the Celtic tiger of the Irish establishment's propaganda.

With audiences in both Britain and Ireland, however, the series went down a storm - not least because among the violence of their lives even the most alienated of the Spencers had a core of humanity ordinary people could relate to.

This was most true of Paula Spencer, the 37 year old mother, whose battle to survive alcoholism, severe beatings from her husband and her own wrenching guilt were developed by Doyle in the 1996 novel The Woman Who Walked into Doors.

Paula, who is now 48 years old, has given up the booze. But she still has to stop herself from going to the off-licence on her way to her various cleaning jobs in the rich suburbs.

In one of the novel's most harrowing scenes, she fights with her 22 year old daughter Leanne for the leftovers of the lager cans strewn across a bedroom floor.

Paula aches physically from the heavy demands of her several jobs - a pain which is exacerbated by the legacy of beatings from her ex-husband.

Yet she aches more for the emotional loss of her children and the scars that their dysfunctional upbringing has left them with.

Much of the novel concerns Paula's attempts to deal with her raging guilt about her four children and re-establish some good things in her relationships with them.

There is much to admire in her character. She battles to win even the most reluctant of her children back in some way or another. She plots with her youngest son Jack to outdo the sniffy teachers who have excluded him for calling them crap on the "rate my teacher" website. She works hard to develop the love between herself and her grandchildren - determined this time to get things right and win the forgiveness of their parents in the process.

Doyle portrays Paula's relationship with her two sisters, Carmel and Denise, with superb skill. Like many siblings, the sisters have equal amounts of love, tenderness, jealousy and pure contempt for each other.

The sisters' ritual evening get togethers provide much of the humour of the novel. Denise's description of the beginning of an affair after a chance encounter at a school parents' evening is hilarious. It provides Doyle with one of his trademark sideswipes at contemporary Ireland in the process: "They sent him to the Christian Brothers, even though there aren't any Brothers left in the school. They're all dead or in jail."

Paula muses if the second home her aspiring sister Carmel is buying in Bulgaria is that of the hapless Hristo, the sole male at her back-breaking low-paid office cleaning job: "She could introduce him to Carmel. Hristo, Carmel. Carmel, Hristo. You can chat about the EU together."

Despite the tragedies that have previously befallen Paula, the trajectory of the novel is largely a positive journey. She is a woman finally coming to terms with who she is and learning to accept who and where she has been.

Roddy Doyle takes us through this journey with much love and empathy for his unusual and authentic heroine.