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Redemption of a Sad and Bitter Life
on March 17, 2009
This is one of the better modern Irish novels I've read in a long time. Sebatian Barry has created a deeply disturbing story about the long and unhappy life of a centenarian named Roseanne McNulty as she lives out her dying days in a Roscommon asylum, the Leitrim Hotel. Her sad, mysterious life has been one of being misunderstood, mistreated, and neglected. Once a very pretty colleen growing up in the Sligo area, Roseanne's life takes some very tragic and unexpected twists and turns throughout the twentieth century. As the daughter of a former Royal Irish Constabulary policeman and a deranged mother, Roseanne gets drawn into a very unfortunate and unhappy set of circumstances that she has no control over. Ireland is about to become independent; the Irish Catholic Church is bent on re-inforcing its authority throughout the state; and local prejudices and superstitions still carry the day. The truth of her story only comes out around her 100th birthday when the director of the asylum, Dr. Grene, does a psychological assessment of her in preparation for releasing her before the old building is demolished. In the space of a number of weeks, Dr. Grene, a very troubled man himself, holds a series of conversations with Roseanne as to the nature of her story. For a while there are two versions of events going on, as Grene and Roseanne regale each other with what they know about the past. Grene's is one obtained by checking out local and national sources, while Roseanne's is one of a selective memory of a wide range of personal hurts and indignities. Using the techniques of psychoanalysis, Grene leads Roseanne to see the bigger picture of her life: the swirl of events that make her less an author of her own terrible misfortune and more the unfortunate, hapless victim of circumstances. By the end of the novel, the issues of guilt that have burdened this woman for close to a century have been removed because two people got together to effect each other's emotional and spiritual healing. Barry writes with conviction and purpose. The old Ireland, bound by servitude to the Church and tradition, comes alive in this story as it battles to hold its own against the forces of modernism and political change.