A Year of White Stripes and Waffles ; LISA GEE Paula Spencer by Roddy Doyle JONATHAN CAPE Pounds 16.99 (277Pp) Pounds 15.50(free P&p) from 0870 079 8897
Paula Spencer - the battered, alcoholic "woman who walked into doors" - returns in Roddy Doyle's captivating new novel nine years older, much hard-won wisdom wiser and four months and five days off the booze. Approaching 48, and still suburbs away from Easy Street, she's miles ahead of where she was at 39. Widowhood, though lonely and sexless, is preferable to the terror of life with Charlo, the husband she adored and feared, who beat her viciously and then escorted her to hospital.
If you haven't already, it's worth reading the earlier novel first. Doyle does gloss Paula's background, her complex relationships with her sisters and children. But her personality, motivations, behaviours and habits of thinking have been so carefully, so tenderly evolved that, if you hold your breath through her earlier struggle for survival, you will appreciate her series of small - yet heroic - successes in the new novel that much more. It's like watching a real person getting a white-knuckled grasp on themselves, on day-to-day life and on their relationships.
You want to cheer Paula on every egg, carrot and salmon-steak of the way as the door of her new huge fridge-freezer opens onto more and more food. At one triumphant moment, "She takes the waffles from the freezer. There are eight left in the box, and three more days to payday. She's two waffles ahead."
It's not only more food: it's more variety, too. Paula's sense of taste, dulled by drink and abuse, is returning - as is her passion for unlikely music. Her growing material well-being and developing adventurousness reflect and foster her burgeoning sense of self. Over the book, she starts regaining the confidence drubbed out of her well before Charlo first raised his fist. …