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In modern day Ireland, a mental hospital has to close. A psychiatrist in his sixties, Dr. Grene, reflects on his patient Roseanne McNulty, or Roseanne Clear, as she says her real name is. She is 100 years old, and has been at the institution since Dr. Grene started his career. Now he has to decide what to do with her, whether she can be returned to the community, or whether she should go to another hospital. She says little and does not explain much. What ails her, and why was she ever institutionalized? The psychiatrist discusses his patient and then his own life, his strained marriage and his current predicament.
Yet the bulk of the text is Roseanne's own writing about her life, in a secret journal she keeps hidden under a floorboard. Her story is wrapped up in Irish history and the Catholic Church, and she starts with her childhood, and her unhappy parents. We learn about her father's job as a grave digger and then as a rat catcher, her mother's madness, and their unfortunate history. He gets caught up in the political struggle of Ireland which divides the country. As Roseanne grew up, she became a great beauty, but she was mostly isolated and downtrodden A priest, supposedly trying to help her, uses his religious doctrines as an excuse to keep Roseanne out of the way, eventually putting her into the mental hospital, where she was for over 60 years. Yet she is one of the mostly content patients and seems to have to found a way to live with her past.
The book contrasts Dr. Grene's detective work about Roseanne's past, built on old documents and a few clues from her, with her own version of her past. While he has Irish ancestry, Gene grew up in England and had an English accent, while Roseanne is full-fledged Irish in her identity. The book explores politics, religious history, psychology, and family. It is ambitious in its scope, and surprisingly successful. It is no surprise that it was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker prize.
Yet it is a hard book to get into. I first tried to read it in hardcover, and was put off by Roseanne's reminiscences of the early twentieth century Ireland. I tried again with the unabridged audiobook, performed by Wanda McCaddon, and the book came alive. She makes Roseanne's patterns of speech, awkward on the page, entirely natural and she brings out the beauty of the language. It is a mesmerizing reading, showing Roseanne to be a fascinating observer of her own life.
Despite the psychiatric setting, there's little in the book about mental illness per se. It does tell the reader about institutions and the way that history gets distorted and lost as it decays in old filing cabinets. But it is profoundly psychological, showing how lives are formed by early experiences and how our self-conceptions and expectations determine our happiness.
© 2009 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.
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