CBR Bingo: Minds
Confession first: I’ve had this book kicking around on my shelves–a signed copy, no less!–since 2016, when Sebastian Barry came to give a reading at my grad school institution, an event timed to coincide with the centenary of the Easter Rising. (Small brag: I got to have barbecue with him and historian Roy Foster, along with my dissertation director and a couple other grad students. He was very nice, and when visiting American cities he likes to see what he can find out about the original indigenous communities of those places.) Since this is my so-called summer of Irish fiction, I figured I should finally actually read it, especially because I had read (and very much enjoyed) his novel On Canaan’s Side.
I don’t know that it defines all of Barry’s fiction (I’ve got a lot more of it to read), but both of these novels are
deeply sympathetic to the experiences of women, particularly Irish women caught up in the tumultuous history of the 20th century. Women, Barry understands, bear the weight of history in a way that the history books have not often recorded well, both on personal and societal levels. In this case, the woman who is wounded by history is Roseanne McNulty, née Clear, a nearly hundred-year-old patient in a Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital (hence: minds). The institution is about to be closed, and the lead psychiatrist, Dr. Grene, is responsible for assessing the remaining patients to see who can be released to the community and who should be transferred to the new (and smaller) institution that will replace Roscommon. Roseanne has been institutionalized, it turns out, for the vast majority of her adult life, and Dr. Grene struggles to see why: Roseanne’s self-narrative doesn’t always tally with the facts he is able to dig up, but she seems undeniably sane, fully aware of herself and her surroundings, lucid and perceptive. Why on earth has she been institutionalized for over fifty years?
The narrative comprises Roseanne and Grene’s respective diaries: she is writing a final narrative of her life, and he is keeping a journal (or “commonplace book”) of these final days of Roscommon. Roseanne seems, at times, an unreliable narrator: for instance, she claims her father was simply a gravedigger and then, later, a rat catcher, a Protestant who was well-liked in the majority-Catholic community of Sligo. Grene, however, finds records that her father was in fact a police officer in the Royal Irish Constabulary, a particularly fraught role in the Ireland of Roseanne’s girlhood, which coincides very neatly with the revolutionary period. Roseanne is also not forthcoming about why she was institutionalized, though there are suggestions it has something to do with inappropriate sexuality, though, again, Green finds this difficult to fathom, as she is so calm and contained much of the time.
I don’t want to give away the plot details, because there is a pleasure in the gradual unfolding of revelations, and Barry paces them well. But I do want to highlight the beauty of Barry’s prose, which seems always to be a strength of this:
“Well, all speaking is difficult, whether peril attends it or not. Sometimes peril to the body, sometimes a more intimate, miniature, invisible peril to the soul. When to speak at all is a betrayal of something, perhaps a something not even identified, hiding inside the chambers of the body like a scared refugee in a site of war.”
And the novel is simply littered with beautiful moments of internal reflection on the nature of life. What’s truly remarkable is how Roseanne is not embittered by the obvious injustices done to her. To wit: “What can I tell you further? I once lived among humankind, and found them in their generality to be cruel and cold, and yet could mention the names of three or four that were like angels. I suppose we measure the importance of our days by those few angels we spy among us, and yet aren’t like them.” Not that Barry is some kind of rosy optimist, that all is well if you just have the right perspective, for also: “History needs to be mightily inventive about human life because bare life is an accusation against man’s dominion of the earth.” And oh, do you ever see life as an accusation here as well, particularly in the form of the Catholic priest who dogs Roseanne’s days (and is part of why she winds up institutionalized), as well as in the form of her in-laws (also Catholic), who largely resent her Protestant incursion into their lives. The novel’s tenderness to Roseanne is also an indictment of both the sectarian strife and religious misogyny that have shaped so much of twentieth-century Ireland. (Notably, Roseanne’s story sprang from a hint that was dropped to Barry about one of his aunts.)
There are a couple twists in the book that are a bit too pat and tidy, and nearly strain credulity, but Barry’s empathy for his characters almost lets him get away with it. It’s hard to be too cross about them. After all, as Barry writes:
“Because it strikes me there is something greater than judgement. I think it is called mercy.”