Book Review: The Woman Who Walked Into Doors

Most of my book reviews are written within a day or two after I’m done reading. As I turn the pages, I take notes in the margins (what else are margins for, anyway?), dog-ear pages that are especially relevant to the message I’ll speak to in the review, and jot down ideas as I go along. By doing this, the reviews often come together easily, which can be a small blessing.

But honesty is needed in this case. I finished reading The Woman Who Walked Into Doors by Roddy Doyle a few weeks ago, almost three weeks to be exact, and I am just now sitting down to write my review. After reading other reviews, I felt I needed to say more to get the white-hot center of it, as Claire Keegan would say in her incredible courses.

Reading through other reviews on Goodreads, even those who haven’t read the novel can be clear that it tackles some weighty issues—alcoholism, domestic abuse, broken families, poverty—and I won’t labor those points. The novel is more than just that, which is where the difficulty comes in; there’s a lot more than abuse going on in Doyle’s novel that makes it a fantastic read.

Putting aside the sometimes overwhelming and graphic violence, Doyle’s novel is a heart wrenching social study. Paula Spencer, our protagonist, is heroic in her imperfect way, and her strength is admirable. She works, she takes care of her kids, and wants things in life only for them (as a maid, she’s jealous of only one home, that being the one in which the kids have everything). She drinks, too, but the rules she’s set for herself are telling of her dedication and effort to do the right thing. Only after Jack, her youngest, goes to bed, and only after she finds the key, which she tosses into the grass every day, will she open the shed where she stores her drink. These rules help Spencer keep sane as she navigates a life that threatens to destroy her.

Some chapters, chapter 18, for example, just sing in their simplicity and depth. Spencer is conversationally, almost monotonously, relating the facts of her day. Of her life. She is annotating to herself what she does and why she does it, all so that she can prevent her mind from wandering to those aspects of her life which are more terrible. Her matter-of-fact way of relating the details of her life are a defense mechanism to prevent her from feeling the strong emotions that threaten her. She thinks about many topics, such as porridge, milk, and her eldest son, John Paul, who has run away to become a drug addict.  Here’s a fantastic example of Spencer’s thought process in action:

“I could never get any of them [her children] to eat porridge. My father believed in porridge. He believed it could do good things for you.
—Culchie food, said John Paul.
I wonder what he has for his breakfast these days.
Leanne has tea. Jack has milk. I only got him to stop using the bottle last year. He’d started school; it was embarrassing. It took him ages to admit that it tastes just as nice out of a Wine the Pooh mug. I did tests with him; it was like an ad. Now try brand X.”

In this passage, Paula mentally stops herself, telling herself to get back to the facts, which allows her to avoid having a breakdown. Readers are in the white-hot center of Spencer’s pain. Although we’re often rooted solidly in Paula’s head, it works. By providing us with such strong access to Spencer’s interior life,  Doyle has exposed Spencer’s fragility, her threatening situation, and her unbelievable ability to keep on in spite of it all.

Toward the end, Doyle’s description of the abuse Spencer survives is sometimes heavy-handed (it goes on for pages, and can be graphic). Yet in spite of this, he’s set us up so that we care deeply about Spencer and her wellbeing. Imperfect as she is, a reader is on her side and not entirely disconnected with the novel when Doyle begins his violent litany.

Yet I must emphasize, perhaps controversially, that Doyle’s more powerful moments aren’t when Spencer’s husband is tearing out her hair; they are the more subtle ones. For me, one of the more saddening scenes in the novel is when the Spencers are first married—chapter 21. The wedding is artificial. The couple is happy, but there’s an air of “putting-on” that makes even their happiness seem fake. This sentence is a great example: “Our house was only a hundred yards from the church but the chauffeur brought us twice around the estate to make a journey of it.” And it wasn’t just the one isolated incident. The photographer missed important moments in the wedding, and the party had to repeat certain actions to capture them appropriately. For example, there are photographs of the Spencers pretending to cut the cake—but not actually cutting it. In essence, the real actions were lost, had gone unnoticed, but the recreated and acted ones are the record of their marriage.

It is, in my opinion, these scenes that make Doyle’s novel so powerful. He tells the complete story of Paula Spencer’s life—a life of not having anything, of wanting more, and of learning to pretend when what’s wanted (and often needed) will never be available to her.

My final word: be prepared for the graphic scenes, and this novel will be a gripping tale that you won’t be able to put down.

Book Review: Sailing for Home: A Voyage from Antigua to Ireland

I got married this past weekend at a yacht club on an island in Maine. The ceremony was beautiful—we were married on a pier overlooking the water, with white lights trellised up the dock and around the railings. Our photographer snapped photos of us on the float, in a rowboat, and on my husband’s father’s boat.

Yep, he has a boat. And does charters too, by the way, and is just fantastic at them. Check him out at My husband’s uncle also does charters and lobster tours—I was lucky enough to go on one once—where he takes people on his boat and tells them about the lobster industry. My father-in-law tells his clients about the history of the bay, including where Edna St. Vincent Millay lived on Ragged Island, and my uncle-in-law tells his clients about the water chemistry and the lobstering industry, how it works and operates.

What I mean to say is that I married into a family of sailors and boaters, a family with a mutant blood composition that’s made of red blood cells and ocean water instead of plasma. For some reason, these ocean-people decided to like me and welcome me into their family, for which I will be forever grateful.

But what they don’t know is that I’ve got some ocean water in my blood, too. I have no idea how it got there—if anything, it should be regular blood and plasma, or perhaps rain water, if it’s special at all. But the salt water is in there, pumping through my veins, and it always has been.

When I was little, I loved being on the ocean. Not just going to the ocean to play in the sand and waves, but to be there. Any ocean-lover will understand what I’m saying. It’s not the sand, or the waves, or the water. Well, not all of it, not exactly. It’s the smell, too, and how the salt in the air curls your hair at the edges, and lightens the load you’re carrying. A lot of things can be made easier to bear by looking out at the ocean. It reminds you of how small you are, and for some reason, that feeling is comforting. And as if by magic, whatever you’re carrying on your shoulders seems to lift up a bit. Salt makes things float, after all, and the ocean air is full of it.

Yet there are some out there who do not understand this feeling. My father, for example, is one of them.

Enter Theo Dorgan’s travel memoir Sailing For Home: A Voyage from Antigua to Ireland. The front cover says it well—a quote from Doris Lessing reads, “A book for everyone.” And a book for everyone it is, especially if you aren’t sure why people go so batty over the coast. Dorgan, in poetic, exacting prose, describes it well from a sailing vantage point:

“Most people never venture on the sea. Many venture into it, at the coastal margins, but never travel on it or through it; millions never lay eyes on the sea in the course of their lives. Yet the sea is the birthplace of our weather, the reservoir for our water and hence, by the magic of convection and rain, our food. It is our dumping ground, our highway to the growth of empires, our place of dreaming and nightmare, our most reached-for metaphor. It is the place whose seeming emptiness we have always regarded as a repository meaning: ‘They that go down the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.’”

While you won’t find swashbuckling action in Dorgan’s memoir, there’s a lyrical flow to the words that hooks the reader and makes them keep along for the story. Though Dorgan’s boat, Spirit, never breaks down, and the crew does not encounter large storms, and though everyone is quite safe during the trip—readers are compelled to keep turning the pages.

This is, in part, because of Dorgan’s deeply personal reflections about the ocean, sailing, and trip from Antigua to Ireland. During his voyage, Dorgan contemplates life, death, writing… and more. It is through his eyes that readers are taken on a journey that seems to touch their very souls—even if they’ve never had an experience like Dorgan. He explains how sailors come to think of their boat as part of them, an extension of humanity, and this mentality is realized throughout his work.

Also compelling is Dorgan’s rebellious, “stick-it-to-the-man” mindset when it comes to sailing (and some other things). His underdog point of view makes his story compelling and relatable for a wide audience. Reading his memoir, gone is the notion that sailing is only for those with money, or that it is pretentious in any way. For example, in just one of many passages in this book, the crew of a large, luxurious ship (the Velsheda) commits a faux pas by deciding to wash the ship’s dust off with previous water. As the dust is not harmful to the ship, and with water as a scarce resource, the crew is being wasteful and arrogant. Dorgan and his sailing mates pause to watch and are disgusted at the vanity they see. They respond to a passerby’s question regarding the majesty of the ship, which Dorgan chronicles with scathing and humorous accuracy:

“Somebody passing by stops, says she’s [Velsheda’s] a beautiful boat, isn’t she? Zaf, with magnificent casualness, deliberately misunderstands him: ‘Yes,’ he says, and—gesturing to Velsheda—I like her dinghy.’ I manage to keep a straight face, but only just.”

It is this kind of self-assured, underdog humor that endears Dorgan and his crew to the reader, and the memoir is full of similar scenes. From evading the judgment of Northern Irish well-to-dos with “the look of lawyers and medical professionals about them,” to painting their boat in Horta, Sailing For Home is a miraculously good read that will bring the pleasure and peace of the ocean right to its readers, which should be everyone—regardless of whether your blood includes plasma or salt water.

See my review on Goodreads!

Quotes from: Dorgan, Theo. Sailing for Home: A Voyage from Antigua to Ireland. Dedalus Press, 2010.