It seems like there is a glut of books now where two parallel narratives in two times link up to solve the mysteries of the other, one being in the past and the other being in the present. It feels like it’s own genre, perhaps. One of the finest examples of this is Sebastian Barry’s tale of a woman in Ireland in the early 1900’s and her subsequent interment in one of the countries mental hospitals. The book explores her life as she remembers it and her life now at almost a hundred years old as her doctor in the hospital tries to discover her past.
The mystery of what she has suffered and why she came to be there are the driving thrust of the narrative, but like many stories of Ireland, it focuses on war, poverty and religious zealotry. It’s a book about the history of Ireland and how everyday people survived there during times of great upheaval and turmoil, and Roseanne is the symbol, the personification of those people. She’s a woman whose father was on the wrong side of the war, was of the wrong religion, and who managed to annoy a local priest by being too beautiful. She’s sent to a mental asylum like many were who did not fit into the regime.
But what are the circumstances of her life? What reason was given for her to be sent there? And can her remaining documents be trusted?
Barry writes with a beautiful, lyrical style. Though he takes in everyday people and monumental losses, he writes with a hint of poetry to his sentences. His characters search their souls and ponder the meaning of things, the meaning of themselves. So the book is more than a sensational mystery that takes in the darker part of life, but rather an exploration of the human condition under stress and in isolation. How do we survive the unsurvivable? What happens to us when we do?
Read It If: you like Irish history, or you love a little mystery to your stories. Beautifully written and tragically sad.