It took me a while to get into this book, but when I did I found it packed a real punch. On one level that is a terrible pun, because as you can tell from the title, it’s about domestic violence. On another level, the casual violence of that metaphor is entirely appropriate to a subject too often hidden or ignored – even language condones brutality. It is nearly twenty years since Doyle wrote this book, and I fear that little has improved for victims of such violence. But hopefully change is at least being discussed. There’s currently a petition doing the rounds against letting the repeat domestic violence offender and millionaire boxer, Floyd Mayweather, into the country; so far, he hasn’t been given a visa. The Australian of the Year for 2015, Rosie Batty, is a campaigner against domestic violence. The new Victorian Labor government has announced that a Royal Commission on Family Violence will begin in February, though the Federal Liberal government is still refusing to establish a national enquiry. I am grateful that my book club chose to consider this book at this time.
Paula Spencer lives in Dublin with three of her four children. John Paul, the eldest boy, is doing drugs in a squat somewhere. Paula begins telling her story at the point, a year ago, when the police came to her door to tell her that her husband Charlo was dead. Although she had thrown him out a year before that, she is still married to him. The story then goes back to Paula’s childhood, her meeting with Charlo, their marriage and her subsequent tendency to walk into doors. It is not told chronologically, but as a reflection on her life, told as the memories arise. And memory is unreliable and selective. ‘It’s all a mess – there’s no order or sequence,’ she says. ‘Listen,’ says her sister, ‘I’ll tell my version and then you can tell your pack of lies.’ Paula wants to find happy memories where there aren’t many, to rework her past to show there were good times. But she can’t. ‘That’s the thing about my memories. I can’t pick and choose them. I can’t pretend. There were no good times.’ The reader is forced to conclude she’s largely right.
Paula doesn’t say so, but looking at her life, the reader can’t help but see the ways in which she is doomed to domestic violence. From a young age, girls are either ‘sluts or tight bitches’. Her confidence in herself as being any good at anything is undermined by her terrible secondary schooling; getting boys attracted to her is her only way of gaining status. She comes to believe that she is ‘a dirty slut in some way that I didn’t understand and couldn’t control’ – though at the same time, she’s proud of her sexual encounters. Her parents offer her nothing by way of support or advice – indeed it seems likely her father hit her mother, though she pushes this thought away. All her hope for the future rests with Charlo, the man she has fallen in love with and married. At first things go well, and he seems to love her equally, but soon enough – when she is pregnant with their first child – her starts hitting her. She blames herself; it is all her fault. She still loves him. ‘There was nothing wrong. He’d be fine. He’d get a job and everything would go back to normal.’ And he continues to hit her for seventeen years. ‘He beat me brainless and I felt guilty. He left me without money and I was guilty …The kids … went wild, they went hungry and it was my fault.’ No one offered her help. No wonder she becomes an alcoholic. ‘That was my life. Getting hit, waiting to get hit, recovering; forgetting.’ But she is a survivor. One day she finds the strength to throw him out.
Doyle is a great story teller, in a style Terry Eagleton has characterised as ‘laconic Dublin-Northside realism’. He has a wonderful ear for dialogue, and tells quite a bit of the story through conversation. He eases the reader into the narrative; there are hints of what is to come, but Paula begins by recalling the more ordinary details of her life – though as I’ve said, they are in retrospect what prepares the way what happens later. Her memories become more and more explicit until violence erupts on two fronts; Charlo is shot by the police and Paula describes his treatment of her. This makes for traumatic reading. Does Doyle overdo it? I don’t think so. Furthermore, the double nature of domestic violence – the love/fear relationship, the dependence built up on the perpetrator by the victim now sound commonplace, but must have been much less understood twenty years ago, in Ireland of all places. The way the book is written doesn’t give a voice to Charlo; we only know that he comes from a brutal and dysfunctional family. (The Spencer family first appeared in the RTÉ/BBC miniseries Family in 1994.) But I don’t miss insights into his motivation.
One of the boldest things about this book is the way Doyle writes from a woman’s perspective. He is no stranger to taking on the voices of others; his Booker Prize winning Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1993) tells the story from the perspective of a ten year old boy. He has also honed his dialogue skills though writing a number of plays, and the screenplays for the films of several of his books. This book has also been turned into an opera. In 2006, Paula Spencer, a sequel to this one, was published, picking up Paula’s life ten years on from the death of her husband. I do hope, without much foundation, that things have improved for her.