Roddy Doyle's latest: epic of a social class

April 14, 1996|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,special to the sun

"The Woman Who Walked Into Doors," by Roddy Doyle. Viking Penguin. 226 pages. $22.95. Irish novelist Roddy Doyle has written another gorgeous novel. "The Woman Who Walked Into Doors" is both powerful fiction and a dirge, a lament as devastating as his Booker Prize-winning "Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha" with its horrifying revelation of the full title: "Paddy Clarke - Has no da. Ha ha ha!" Paddy's dad abandons the family and Paula, Mr. Doyle's new heroine, is beaten senseless for 17 years by Charlo, her brutal husband, before this novel's own startling conclusion. Mr. Doyle writes so honestly that it feels as if no writer has ever before told the truth.

The story is told from Paula's perspective, the better to understand why she endured Charlo's abuse. The Reader is at once swept into Paula's consciousness as a woman who "walked into doors," a euphemism for the excuses battered Irish women offer the outside world.

Doyle does not condescend to Paula. Her school might have placed her in 1.6, the class just above the retards. But he graces her with a spirit of inquiry, cheerfulness, decency and a sense of responsibility. She worries about her children's shoes and notes sardonically that even the people in Sarajevo on the telly have warm clothes, unlike herself.

About such women, Doyle reveals, doctors, teachers, priests, and even their own parents care nothing; no one takes the trouble to look into Paula's eyes. The parents in her world breed and then don't know what to do with their children.

No wonder that she has sex for the first time in a soggy field with a former skinhead who had been in prison and has a scar on his belly from being stabbed. The doctors treating her torn body look only at her parts. "Ask me ask me ask me," she pleads silently. No one does.

Yet Paula's voice is far from dim. She refuses to make excuses either for herself, or for Charlo. He did not beat her because the society had no use for him and he lost his job. It was about character, who he was.

Even as Paula has endured unspeakable harm, she withholds from the reader the details of her savage married life until two-thirds of the novel has passed; so she rationalizes; so Doyle renders psychologically acute the very shape of his story. Then the novel becomes heart-stopping: "He killed most of me," she reveals. "He killed all of me."

Then the novel becomes poetry, a dirge: "Someone is crying. Someone is vomiting. It will be me but not yet," Paula chants. She is both herself and also all women who have ever been beaten, all the invisible women who "walked into doors."

Yet even after Charlo is killed she wants him back. She has been to hell, has become profoundly alcoholic, yet she is only 39 and the future holds nothing for her. The ending is satisfying, its motivation true to Paula's character, even if, alas, the event seems surreal.

Roddy Doyle has brilliantly told from the inside the story of a woman no less than the story of a social class. Short in length, "The Woman Who Walked Into Doors" is epic in scope. This is fiction of the highest quality.

Joan Mellen has written 12 books., among them "Woman and Their Sexuality in New Film" and "Kay Boyle: Author of Herself." Her fiction includes "Natural Tendencies." Her dual biography, "Hellman and Hammett," will be published in June by HarperCollins.

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