- "We are not wolves, but lambs astonished in the margins of the fields by sunlight and summer.”
- "She was like a painting with its varnish darkening, obscuring the beauty of the work."
- "I will be like a sparrow without a garden.”
- Grief "is a voyage to the centre of the earth, a huge heavy machine boring down into the crust of the earth. And a little man growing wild at the controls. Terrified, terrified, and no turning back."
Lines such as these make me breathless with wonder.
Roseanne, once the most beautiful girl in Sligo, is one hundred years old and still with all her marbles and living in a decaying asylum in Roscommon. Dr Grene is the psychiatrist in charge and it is his responsibility to decide what is to happen to her: the asylum is closing down and the inmates are either moving to a brand new facility or being freed into the community with varying degrees of support. Dr Grene is further concerned that Roseanne's original incarceration might have been for reasons that nowadays no longer qualify as lunacy. There is a strong suspicion that she was locked up for her loose morals.
The narrative alternates between the autobiography that Roseanne is writing and hiding beneath her floorboards and Dr Grene's diary. The main thrust of the story, interrupted by Dr Grene's witterings, is Roseanne's life from being the daughter of the Sligo grave digger through to her marriage and beyond until she is admitted to the Sligo Mad House. The men in Roseanne's life include Presbyterians and Catholics, priests and policemen, and every shade of political opinion in an Ireland experiencing the civil war just after the Free State won independence from Britain, the backlash after the civil war as the de Valera government asserted control, the hard economic conditions and the fascist movements of the thirties and the neutrality of the Second World War. In many ways the turbulence of Roseanne's life mirrors the political turbulence of the young nation.
The prose can be awe-inspiring and insightful. This is from the first page:
“That place where I was born was a cold town. Even the mountains stood away. They were not sure, no more than me, of that dark spot, those same mountains.What a start!
There was a black river that flowed through the town, and if it had no grace for mortal beings, it did for swans, and many swans resorted there, and even rode the river like some kind of plunging animals, in floods.
The river also took the rubbish down to the sea, and bits of things that were once owned by people and pulled from the banks, and bodies too, if rarely, ohl and poor babies, that were embarrassments, the odd time. The speed and depth of the river would have been a great friend to secrecy.” (p 3)
More moments of brilliance:
- “I was not indifferent to the boys ... I seem to remember thinking a sort of music rose from them, a sort of human noise that I did not understand. How I heard music arising from such rough forms I do not know at this distance. But such is the magicianship of girls, that they can transform mere clay into large and classic ideas.” (p 36)
- “Such a small, clean man when crossed was like a scything blade, the grass, the brambles and the stalks of human nature went down before him.” (p 38)
- “As time goes on, as I am slowly like everyone else worn out, finding a tatter here and a tear there in the cloth of myself, I need this place more and more.” (p 46)
- “The trust of those in dark need is forgiving work” (p 46)
- “In a few years I will reach retirement age, and what then? I will be like a sparrow without a garden.” (p 46)
- “For the life of me I did not know the soul of the person that stared back at me in my mother's mossy little mirror.” (p 57)
- “the devil's own tragedy is he is the author of nothing and architect of empty spaces.” (p 63)
- “She was like a painting with its varnish darkening, obscuring the beauty of the work.” (p 68)
- “A beard on a man is only a way of hiding something, his face of course. but also the inner matters, like a hedge around a secret garden, or a cover over a birdcage.” (p 102)
- “It is always worth itemising happiness, There is so much of the other thing in a life, you had better put down the markers for happiness while you can.” (p 148)
- “There are pits of grief obviously that only the grieving know. It is a voyage to the centre of the earth, a huge heavy machine boring down into the crust of the earth. And a little man growing wild at the controls. Terrified, terrified, and no turning back.” (p 172)
- “We bury or burn the dead because we want to separate their corporeality from our love and remembrance. We do not want them after death to be still in their bedrooms, we want to hold an image of them living, in the full life in our minds.” (p 175)
- “We are never old to ourselves. This is because at close of day the ship we sail in is the soul, not the body.” (p 185)
- “The world is not full of betrayers, it is full of people with decent motives and a full desire to do right by those who know them and love them. ... We are not wolves, but lambs astonished in the margins of the fields by sunlight and summer.” (p 186)
- “I once lived among humankind, and found them in the generality to be cruel and cold, and yet could mention the names of three or four that were like angels.” (p 277)
- “Is not most history written in a sort of wayward sincerity?” (p 289)
March 2018; 303 pages