“Morality has its own civil wars, with its own victims in their own time and place.”
This is an unabashedly sentimental novel, wallowing in a mire of nostalgia and despondent memories and narrated by a hundred year old woman in a crumbling hospital for the mentally ill. Also interleaved with present day narrations by her doctor, quite an old man himself, who is trying to deal with the melancholy of a crumbling marriage and being around a mental institution every day.
While that whole setup may not sound very salubrious, the thing is, it is done very well. The reader is soaked in the atmosphere of early-nineteenth century Ireland in between the wars and in the midst of the Troubles. Our main narrator is Roseanne McNulty, a hundred plus year old seasoned inmate of the hospital of which Dr. Grene is the chief doctor. The crumbling hospital is finally being relocated to a more modern and smaller structure, and Dr. Grene is faced with the unenviable task of determining if he can release some of the patients into ‘normal’ life in order to deal with the smaller capacity of the new hospital. Despite being in the same hospital as Roseanne for more than thirty years, it is only with this development that he decides to start making her acquaintance and get to know more about the circumstances behind her confinement (which covers most of her life). It wasn’t uncommon for people, especially women, to be interned in asylums at the time for no other reason than they were considered a disgrace or a deviant in ‘proper’ society and Dr. Grene wants to find out if this was the case with Roseanne. Roseann, for her part, maintains her diary/notebook which is presented as her narration to the reader, but hides it whenever the doctor comes. While their initial interactions come across as guarded, soon they form a subtle but warm bond and Dr. Grene starts respecting the quiet strength and dignity of his old patient. However, even he wouldn’t have been prepared for the shock and wonder of the eventual revelation the book has.
I loved Barry’s earlier book, A Long, Long Way, with its vivid and humane descriptions of the brutality of the warzones of World War 1 and this one, while less action packed, is also indulgently realized in the time and place it represents. It also passes a very critical eye on the state of society at the time, especially on the women it casts its aspersions on, sometimes for no more reason than unfounded gossip and suspicion. Roseanne’s initial life, while hard, was marked by her love for her graveyard managing father, and these sections of bonding between father and daughter is beautifully rendered as is the gradual withdrawing of her mother as circumstances change.
The circumstances, when they come, mark some drastic changes in the family’s life, especially in Roseanne’s. The first, an encounter with some soldiers in the graveyard who want to bury their dead comrade, brings with it an enigmatic priest and a reassigning of her father’s job. The second, later on in life, once she seems to be happily married, is linked to the events of the first incident and forever alters her fate. The priest, Father Gaunt, is another fascinating character, forever shrouded in mystery in terms of his true intentions and thoughts. One thing which cannot be denied though, is the import which church and its take on moralities had on the people and society at the time and how this hold had a distasteful effect on people’s lives then, here manifested in Roseanne’s drastic change in life.
Another interesting aspect of the narration is the different perceptions of history when viewed from different people’s accounts. Dr. Grene, while unraveling the mystery behind Roseanne’s life, finds the information he comes across as markedly different in certain aspects from what Roseanne tells. But what is the truth? And what are historical accounts but someone’s written recollections of events passed? Can any account be said to be more honest than another? Or is all of history, like memories, colored by the viewpoint of the person narrating it?
It’s a fascinating set of quandaries this book throws up, but more than anything, it is the humanity Barry infuses in his characters that make us root for them and ache for them when things go awry.
I would highly recommend this to any lover of good, if a little morose, literature.