This is from what I call “The Cathy Collection.” For the past two years my boss has been sharing her book collection with me, and she has introduced me to some of my new favorite authors, like Louise Erdrich and Alice Munro, and some of my favorite books, like Cutting for Stone and In the Time of the Butterflies. And now she has found Sebastian Barry for me. This is the first one of the four of his books that I have from Cathy. Expect more of this guy on Postcards from Purgatory.
I feel a strange affinity for the modern Irish writers I’ve discovered recently. I don’t know if it’s because I’m part Irish myself, or if the language is beautiful or the stories are compelling or what. The interesting thing is that the books I’ve read have been by men and have women as the protagonists. This has historically annoyed me because I don’t feel like men have any significant ability to write about women. Obviously this is not true, but I remember when I saw the Jack Nicholson movie As Good as it Gets in 1997 or so, a fan asked his character (who was a writer), how he writes women so well, and his response is “I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.” Of course, if anyone remembers this movie, Jack Nicholson’s character was also a notorious asshole with OCD. So probably this was not a great place to get information on how male writers write female characters. But now that I’m thinking about it this little quote may have more than a little to do with why I shunned male writers for so long. Moving along, I don’t feel that Sebastian Barry wrote Roseanne McNulty by imagining a man and taking away reason and accountability. His protagonist in The Secret Scripture is very well-drawn and sympathetic, and I loved learning the story of her life, even though much of it was a sad, sad Irish tale.
There are two points of view in this book: one is Roseanne McNulty’s autobiography, which she writes at one hundred years of age in a lunatic asylum. Obviously this raises concerns for the reliability of her version of events. And the other point of view is third person limited, Dr. Grene, the head psychiatrist at Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital, where Roseanne has been a patient since 1957 (the present day in the book is approximately now; the copyright date is 2006). Dr. Grene has problems of his own, but remains a reliable narrator, though some of his information about Roseanne is faulty at the beginning. Dr. Grene’s investigation of Roseanne’s past is precipitated by the plans for the closing of the Mental Hospital, which is woefully out of date. The staff is being relocated to a much smaller, and thankfully more modern facility; the problem is that not all of the patients can go with them and Dr. Grene has to determine which of the patients could be released, transferred, or will go to the new facility. He finds himself drawn to Roseanne for one reason or another, and their two stories unfold jointly.
The conceit of having parallel narratives in a novel is one that I have been attracted to since it became popular over the past few years. The problem with it is that it is overdone and often not that well done. And usually ends up with a “surprise” connection between the two narratives that isn’t really that much of a surprise. All I will say about this parallel narrative novel is that yes, there is a “surprise,” and yes, it wasn’t much of a surprise. But other than that, the two stories in this book worked for me, probably because each protagonist was a character in the other’s narrative rather than the stories being completely separate with a sudden connection made at the very end (I’m speaking of Sarah’s Key. If you don’t remember that one, see my review). This one worked because they are both set in the present day with Roseanne telling the story of her past as she goes along. I don’t think it would have worked as well if Roseanne’s story had been presented as, say, a journal written in her youth that Dr. Grene finds somewhere. It works because it’s her, looking back as an old lady (possibly a crazy person), telling her story.
As Roseanne’s story continues, it becomes more obvious that maybe she was not justifiably placed in the lunatic asylum; perhaps it was a conspiracy by the evil Catholics in her town of Sligo to get her out of sight for reasons of their own. Because yes, there are non-Catholics in Ireland (I know, I was surprised, too). Roseanne is Presbyterian. And back in the 1940’s, Catholics didn’t have the lackadaisical attitude they have towards intermarriage they do now. I won’t give away any details, because I think everyone should read this book, but suffice it to say that Roseanne’s good name is dragged through the mud, stomped down in the mud, and drowned in the mud. It doesn’t help matters that her mother is a real crazy person, and that connection was definitely used to the advantage of the evil Catholics. I can’t quite figure out if Barry himself is Catholic and trying to make literary amends for some of the sketchy things Catholics have done, or if he is not and trying to make Catholics look bad. Either way, it’s always good to hear about awful things done in the name of the Catholic Church. What I like about hearing these things is that it makes even lapsed Catholics like me feel guilty….
My major issue with this book comes with the Irish history aspect. There’s quite a few wars contained in its pages. Roseanne is born before The Great War, and is alive while The War on Terror is happening. All wars of significance to Ireland are mentioned. In addition to the famous wars, Ireland has several Civil Wars of its own to contend with. I had a hard time figuring out what the sides were in the Irish wars. Were the sides based on religion? Were they based on political views or pro-England vs. anti-England? Or a combination? I usually am able to sort out all these historical conundrums using Wikipedia, but I found the Wikipedia entries even more confusing than what was in the book. This annoyed me more than a little, and even now as I type away I want to try and figure it all out. Or maybe not knowing whose side I should be on is the whole point of the confusion I felt while reading. Maybe Barry’s goal was to make it vague. I don’t know. I do know that the Irish fight too much.
So I guess that’s all. I definitely recommend this book, especially to my co-blogger, because she has admitted to having difficulty enjoying Irish fiction. I think it is a pretty easy read, though would also be a good one for discussion, because it really is left up in the air whether Roseanne McNulty is sane, though I’m on the pro-sanity side. I’d love to hear if anyone reads it and thinks she’s nuttier than a fruit-cake.
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