This book was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2008 and also went on to win the Costa Book of the Year award the same year. The book is the story of Roseanne McNulty (nee Clear) who is almost 100 years old and a resident of Roscommon Mental Hospital. The story is mainly told from her point of view, although some narrative is also provided by Dr Grene who works at the hospital and who is charged with deciding which patients should be moved to a new hospital or released into the community. Roseanne is writing her own story which she hides under the floorboards. Dr Grene is very interested in Roseanne and her story and tentatively starts to discover her story – and becomes very friendly with her as well.
Roseanne’s story is tragic. She came from a very poor family in Sligo and her Father was a Presbyterian cemetery keeper, but after an incident in the Irish Civil War he loses his job and becomes the rat-catcher instead. This leads to even more difficult times for the family and is possibly instrumental in the descent into madness of Roseanne’s mother. Things do not get better when her Father dies too. The way he died is open to doubt and you are not sure as to where the truth lies – with the way Roseanne remembers things or the way they were documented by others. Was her Father a Policeman or not? What happened to her child? Was there even a child? This ambivalence that exists throughout the novel makes it an interesting and beguiling read. The group members all had their own ideas of how things happened but they were not all the same. Later Roseanne marries Tom NcNulty but after some happiness her marriage is over after one mistake.
In and out of the story weaves Father Gaunt, the local Catholic Priest. He is largely responsible for getting Roseanne committed to the mental hospital and annulling her marriage and his presence casts a dark spell in the book whenever he appears. There is much darkness in the book and although well written it’s not by any means a light read. It is beautifully written though and you can tell that Barry is also a recognised poet and playwright from the language alone. I recommend this book whole heartedly