16 June 2006

Roddy Doyle, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors

A striking book (wow, what a terrible choice of words to describe a book that focuses on domestic abuse...).

This novel is surprisingly difficult to describe. It's written from the perspective of a poor woman living in a trailer outside of Dublin. Near the beginning of the book, we find out that her husband, whom she had kicked out perhaps a year earlier, was shot by the police, after he killed a woman during a robbery attempt. Incidentally, a very similar robbery attempt appears in the Irish movie Intermission - I wonder if it's a coincidence? Anyhow, the novel is narrated by this woman, and is a kind of memoir. She writes about her childhood and her relationship with her husband. The present sort of intrudes as she talks about her family life now, her urge to drink, etc.

What's notable about the text is that it comes from the perspective of a person who is almost a cliche - the poor alcoholic, victim of domestic abuse, etc. The woman's life is absolutely wretched, but at the same time, the book doesn't make a bid for pity. It's fascinating, the way you can't seem to get an angle on the characters. The husband, for instance, alternately seems like a pretty great guy or a complete monster. Perhaps this is because the narrator seems to vacillate between the two views. Also interesting is the way in which the text sort of chronicles the collapse of subjectivity - you watch her lose utter faith in herself, and her ability to remember, and describe accurately. The text begins to seem frantic, repetetive, as though she is insisting that it was this way, and trying to convince both the reader, and herself, that she can speak reliably.

It's an incredibly grim story, and yet, even despite lengthy sections detailing pretty horrific violence, it's not heartbreaking. Not that it's a light, entertaining read, but it's not deeply disturbing, and I really can't figure out why. It's very well written, and very interesting. You somehow feel that you've genuinely gotten access to another person's inner life. It's not a warm cuddly feeling, particularly given how awful that life is, but it's somehow... touching, perhaps? Not in the sappy sense. Maybe it's that you feel moved, not in the sense of, overwhelmed with emotion, but rather, moved from your own headspace into someone else's. It's like you're dispassionate, but highly interested, observer. In any case, a very curious book.

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