As with my previous Reading Ireland 2018 post, I picked two books at random from the TBR, but they turned out to be thematically linked. They are both about the impact of alcohol dependency on families, and both achieve the difficult balance of not being depressing yet not shying away from the damage alcohol can cause. Orange juices all round everyone – or maybe a cup of tea?
Firstly, Paula Spencer by Roddy Doyle (2006), a sequel to his 1996 novel, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors. I thought TWWWID was brilliantly written, and I was looking forward to catching up with Paula again and finding out what she’d made of her life beyond her abusive husband. At the start of the novel Paula is 4 months sober.
“She’s tired at night and that’s the way it should be. A hard day’s work and that. She likes being tired. Tired and sober – it’s different. The sleep is different – it’s sleep. Although she doesn’t always sleep. But it’s grand; it’s fine. She’s not complaining.
She brushes her teeth. The important ones are there. The ones at the front. The missing ones aren’t seen, unless she smiles too wide. Then the gaps appear.”
We don’t learn what prompted Paula to commit to sobriety this time but she’s sticking with it. She’s worried about her kids: Nicola has grown up too quickly, caring for Paula and her siblings; John Paul has given up drugs but is in a relationship with a woman Paula’s not keen on; Jack is fine, but Leanne seems to be following in her mother’s footsteps:
“What does an alcoholic mother say to her alcoholic daughter? It’s shocking. It’s terrible. But Paula’s not falling down on the ground. She’s not running away or pretending it’s not there, or screaming and making it worse, All the things she’s done before and will probably do again.
I am an alcoholic.
She’s facing it.
She drinks her tea standing up. She needs the energy that standing up gives her, the alertness.”
Paula facing it was what I really liked about the characterisation in this novel. She feels guilty about the past, but she doesn’t beat herself up over it – if anyone’s had enough beatings it’s Paula. She allows that she’s human, and she never pities herself. She’s a remarkable woman, a strong woman, although she doesn’t see it.
“Maybe it’s the way the brain works to protect itself. It invents a new woman who can look back and wonder, instead of look back and howl. Maybe it happens to everyone. But it’s definitely the drink, or life without it. It’s a different world. She’s not sure she likes it that much. But she’s a new-old woman, learning how to live.”
This is the problem for addicts: often by the time they’re ready to be sober, there’s very little to be sober for. But Paula takes the life she has, her problematic relationship with her kids, her low-paid, hard-graft job and she gets on with it. This isn’t bleak or depressing, it’s actually a believable and life-affirming story of human endurance and resilience.
“She sits back and it sits beside her. The need, the thirst – it’s there, here.”
As with TWWWID, I was absolutely rooting for Paula. It’s her story and as it was in TWWWID her voice is crystal clear and so real. But it’s also a story of modern Ireland: the Celtic Tiger, being part of the EU – Paula is the only Irish cleaner at her work – and contemporary music that Paula takes joy in, learning what came after Thin Lizzy. It’s about redemption, personal and national (the IRA disarm towards the end), but a redemption that carries the past with it:
“All of Paula’s past is in her back. It’s there, ready, breathing. One last kick from a man who died twelve years ago.”
Secondly, Tatty by Christine Dwyer Hickey (2004). In Paula Spencer, the question is posed: “Alcoholics can stop drinking but what is there for the children of alcoholics? Is it always too late? Probably. She doesn’t know.” and this is what Tatty is concerned with. It follows Tatty over 10 years as the child of at least one alcoholic, possibly two. Hickey manages a remarkable feat in capturing both a child’s point of view and writing in the second person in a way that isn’t annoying:
“And you can feel your face wobbling like jelly when the car goes out of town and over the cobblestones, and you can see all the dark houses on all the dark roads; then you can lie down and look at the orange street lights, pulling you home on a long orange string.”
Tatty is an observant, confused, conflicted child. She lives in a world where men and women live clearly delineated lives, separate from one another. Tatty adores her roguish father and this adds to her isolation from her mother:
“They stay in the kitchen; they sit at the table and smoke cigarettes and drink tea and give out stink about men and that’s a bit mean because the men never give out about them. The men never say anything about them at all.”
Tatty is a bright child and she finds solace and companionship in books:
“They’re nearly as good as real friends anyway, because she can go places with them and talk to them and they talk back and include her in. Sometimes they’re even better than real friends, because you just don’t just know what they look like and where they live; you know as well what they’re thinking and how they feel about things. A real friend mightn’t tell you something like that.”
Hickey brilliantly captures the pain of childhood even when it is barely acknowledged by the child. Tatty and her siblings have markers of difference that are picked up on by the other children. Her sister ditches her milk on the way to school because it’s in a whiskey bottle. The fact that the family have little money and the children are neglected is perfectly obvious to the other children at school:
“Sometimes you can match the girls to their lunches. The best lunches belong to the same sort of girls. Girls with lace socks and black patent shoes. Girls like Geraldine Draper. She gets a Club Milk and a bottle of Coca-Cola that she opens with her own proper opener, She gets triangle sandwiches packed into her lunch box and King crisps her Dad buys in a shop near his work…She has bouncy ringlets squirting all over her head and a different ribbon for every day of the year…She has lovely plastic covers on her schoolbooks; her pencil case is always packed.”
Tatty is offered an escape when she goes away to boarding school. We don’t know why she is going because Tatty doesn’t know, but it may be because she is her father’s favourite and the brightest. She finds the separation from family not remotely traumatic:
“Tatty tries to think what homesick means and why it makes you cry. When Mam goes mental she might start shouting, I’m sick of this bloody house! I’m sick of it! Sick of it!
But she knows that can’t be the same thing.”
Tatty is a subtle novel. We can see the damage being caused by the parents but it is never hammered home, because Tatty herself is not aware of it. It stops the novel from being unrelenting bleak, but it doesn’t obscure the damage that is being done to a family by the alcohol dependency. The final image in the novel is truly heart-breaking and it left me reeling.
To end, another clip from Father Ted, and a reminder that reading Roddy Doyle can have side effects: