This is the story of how I got to own The Woman Who Walked into Doors: I was 16 at home in Nigeria, in Port Harcourt City on summer vacation. I’d decided to take a walk through town (in those days when one could safely do that). I was walking past the new flyover on the main street. You never really know what you’re going to find there under the flyover. Usually, there are overweight women and underfed children selling groundnuts and oranges, or young men selling bootleg DVDs. Once, I walked by and found a man’s bloated corpse lying face-down in the dirt. He stayed there for a week. Another day, there was a great bloody fight between two motorcycle taxi men and a large crowd assembled to watch. On this day, though, I found a small crudely-made wooden bookshelf with a few second- (or third-) hand books lined up neatly on it. Beside the shelf, sitting on a white overturned paint bucket, was an old, thin man wearing a slack brownish t-shirt that clearly used to be white, and a pair of dull, tattered slacks, which may have once been black. He wore no shoes. Perhaps they were hidden inside the bucket. I went under the flyover into the shade and looked through the books. He had the good 1970s sci-fi novels, he had Mario Puzo’s The Last Don, two or three Agatha Christies, and Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked into Doors. There were other books, but I don’t remember them. All were going for the equivalent of U.S. cents. I told him he had a nice collection and joked that perhaps he was selling them for too little. When he looked at me to answer, I realized that one eye was watery and bluish grey from cataracts. He smiled and said in Pidgin English that people here don’t buy books or read as such, and he has to eat, so he sells them for whatever price will guarantee a meal. I smiled and said that made sense. We made small talk. I laughed at his jokes. I looked for a book.
I had an English teacher from Latvia at the time who once recommended I read Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, but I couldn’t find a copy in the libraries, and the book shops only seemed to carry Christian books, or romance novels, or popular thrillers. So when I saw this Doyle on the shelf, I knew I had to have it. It wasn’t Paddy Clarke, but it was a Doyle, and that would have to do. I began searching in my purse for the money. The man shook his head and said, “Take it.” I protested, reminded him why he sold his books so cheap in the first place. Then he turned to me and said slowly, “When an old man like me gives a gift to a young person like you, you take it. Understand?” He smiled then. There were spaces where teeth should have been. I never saw him again under that flyover.
I only just read the book. I finished it last night on the L train on my way home. (I don’t know why I waited so long to pick it up). When I’d read the last sentence, I embraced the book. I actually closed my eyes and hugged it. I didn’t care about what people might have thought of me, what they might have told their friends when they got to the bars—“I saw this crazy girl hugging a book on the train. Only in New York…”—But the fact was that they hadn’t met Paula Spencer. They didn’t know her and love her like I did. If they did, they wouldn’t want to let her go either.
Paula is the narrator. She lives in Dublin. Her husband Charlo’s just been shot and killed by the police. Apparently, he shot and killed the elderly woman he was robbing, and while he was trying to get away, the police gunned him. Paula loves Charlo, but when an officer comes to her house to give her the news, she doesn’t shed a tear. You get the sense she knew it was coming. Paula then tells us the story of her life as a suburban wife who cleans homes and lifeless offices for a living. She tells us the story of her life as a drunk, as a loving, excited sister, as a tired mother, as a physically abused wife. If I’d met Paula in real life, I’d think she was a washed out woman, exhausted from life. I’d blame a poor diet and poor dental hygiene for her missing teeth, and I’d blame her drinking for the cuts and bruises on her face when she’d tell me she walked into a door or fell down the stairs. For some reason, it wouldn’t occur to me to blame her husband’s fists, or his shoes, or the bread knife, or the chip fryer. It’s very hard not to love Paula. She’s honest. She’s funny. She’s a fighter.
In his book, Doyle has successfully taken a “regular” suburban woman—a person we might pass on the street without taking much notice—and made her into a proper heroine about whom songs should be written and more tales should be told. (I love it when something magical is borne of the seemingly mundane!) In just over 200 pages, he has made every character as three-dimensional as any person walking the Earth, which is no mean feat. And as for Paula, she is so present in the pages, her voice is so clear that it only makes sense that she picked up a pen one day (the day the news came about Charlo) and wrote it all. It’s a beautiful thing when a writer can disappear entirely as his/her characters leap completely to life. Find this book however you do, read this book whenever it feels right, and, when you’re done, if the sudden urge to embrace the book overcomes you, don’t fight it.
Bio: Adaeze Elechi is an editorial assistant at Guernica. Read her last recommendation “here”:http://www.guernicamag.com/blog/1421/rec_room_adaeze_elechi_good_ha/.