by Sebastian Barry
I didn’t know what to expect, but I really enjoyed this book.
The language is poetic in many places, and for me this worked very well and served to further illustrate the characters. For example, soon after introducing Father Gaunt, we are told: “He carried a highly ecclesiastical umbrella, like something real and austere, that said its prayers at night in the hatstand”. Or when Roseanne describes her skin as a centenarian as being like the thin transparent layer that covers a razor fish shell that you might find on a beach. These passages give you an insight into Roseanne’s character and her powers of observation, and this helps the reader to trust her version of the story, even though it is at odds with the ‘official’ version recorded by Fr Gaunt.
I also liked the way Roseanne’s reflections as an old person contrast with the way she describes her life as a girl and young woman. In most of her narrative, she inhabits her younger self, so that you sometimes forget that she is telling the story some 70 years later. But then her older character comes out with something like this: “It is always worth itemising happiness, there is always so much of the other thing in a life, you had better put down the markers for happiness while you can” and you feel that it is the older Roseanne reflecting on her life, and presenting it in the way she wants to.
Roseanne’s life is shaped by the environment she lives in: the civil war in Ireland; the influence of the clergy in the new republic; and finally the official move to close down institutions such as the one in which she has spent most of her adult life, and to right some of the wrongs done to their inmates. She has no control over these historical events, and she doesn’t even reflect on them much, yet they have been the main influences on her life and that of the people around her. I felt that this was an interesting treatment of the subject of Irish history. This book gave me a better understanding, in particular of the relationship between church and state in Ireland during the middle years of the twentieth century.
I was less satisfied with the ‘twist in the tail’ and I felt that tying up Roseanne’s story with that of Dr Grene and John Kane was just a bit too tidy and rather implausible. However, it didn’t detract from the main story as far as I was concerned.
For our book group, I gave this book a score of 8 out of 10.