I finished this book very late, the same day that it made the Booker Prize shortlist. It’s a wonderful book – written in the same beautiful lilting Irish style as A Long Way Home, and it’s achingly sad.
Roseanne McNulty is about to reach her 100th birthday at the Roscommon Mental Hospital where she has spent most of her life. It is due for closure, and because Dr Grene, the psychiatrist, has to select which of the inmates can be resettled in the community. he investigates her case. The story of her life is told through his journal, called a commonplace book, and hers, which she hides under the floorboards of her room…
BEWARE: LOTS OF SPOILERS
Roseanne’s story is a metaphor for the story of Ireland. As the story unfolds in her beautiful, reflective and forgiving prose, it shows the tragedy of this woman’s life: declining into poverty as her father – once one of the hated police who ‘works for the English’ to suppress the rebels/patriots – is forced into degrading work, first as a grave-digger, and then as a rat-catcher. Her mother retreats into herself and is finally committed; her father is found having hung himself.
As Dr Grose’s pursuit of the original case notes eventually reveals, Roseanne’s father was actually hung by the rebels after a botched attempt to hurl him from a high tower – an event which Roseanne witnessed, but repressed from her memory.
Her marriage to Tom McNulty is doomed from the start because she is Protestant and will not convert. Her mother-in-law, a cold-hearted woman, is singleminded about her faith – consigning her only daughter to the convent at an early age – and she never accepts Roseanne, Her malice has disastrous consequences. An innocent meeting between Roseanne and one of the rebels, John Levelle, is interpreted by Father Gaunt as sinful, and his condemnation is bizarre. She is branded a nymphomaniac by the village and kept in total isolation from the community, enabling an annulment of the marriage to take place. The tragedy of this lovely young woman’s life being ruined because of their absurd religion and culture of hating women’s sexuality is haunting. When she subsequently has a child to Tom’s brother, the baby is taken from her and she is commited to the Sligo asylum when she loses her sanity altogether. There she is repeatedly abused, not finally achieving any peace until she is a very old woman at Roscommon.
Dr Grene’s discovery of these events is accompanied by a journey of self-discovery for him too. One of the issues explored by this story is the problem of knowing when to ‘let go’ and when to persist in seeking the truth. This leads to a totally unexpected twist at the end which is criticised by some as lacking in credibility but which I found rather charming, and somehow ‘right’.