Possibly a century old, Roseanne Clear McNulty has resided in the soon-to-be-demolished Roscommon hospital for over half her life. As patients are processed, either to go back into the world or be sent to another facility, her physician, Dr. Grene begins a subtle questioning to learn the facts about Roseanne’s long years of institutionalization and the reason for her commitment.
Through alternating chapters where Roseanne pens a secret memoir and Dr. Grene researches her past, a deeply disturbing story is revealed, a lifetime of shame and harsh judgment heaped on a woman whose main crime is her exceptional beauty. Roseanne’s story - or her personal recollection of it - differs considerably from Dr. Grene’s discoveries, particularly regarding her father, Joe Cleary, who dies quite young in extraordinary circumstances.
Devoted to her father, Roseanne is devastated by his death. Her mother fades over time to depression, left on her own in Sligo, the only town she has ever known. Ireland is buffeted by generations of IRA battles for independence; the Clearys are Presbyterians in a Catholic country, Roseanne always an outsider.
Then Roseanne falls in love and marries Tom McNulty, a popular man with a local band who is closely related to the rebel factions along with his brothers, Jack and Eneas. For all matters spiritual, the brothers defer to their rigidly religious mother and a local priest, Father Gaunt. It is Fr. Gaunt who visits his misogyny upon the beautiful young woman. Thus at the heart of this novel is a terrible injustice perpetrated on an innocent individual.
Dr. Grene is the calm voice of the institution, a dispassionate but interesting authority figure who becomes increasingly fascinated by Roseanne’s story, a woman whose ancient face still retains traces of her classic beauty. Regardless of which vision of Joe Cleary is correct, his daughter’s or her doctor’s, the girl’s early impressions of love and home are forged by the close bond with her family. In her naiveté she gravitates to Tom McNulty, secure in his love - at least until she is disabused of her innocence. Alone in the world once Tom turns his back, Roseanne is completely helpless, an outcast in a judgmental society.
From both Roseanne and Dr. Grene’s perspectives, Barry reveals an Ireland deeply immersed in violence, a Catholic Church that rules with an iron fist, and a natural hostility by the clergy toward anyone not of the Faith. Should she have been baptized Catholic, some of the circumstances Roseanne endures would not be possible; the fact that she is “other” allows her persecution.
Besides her beauty, Roseanne’s other disadvantage is the era in which she lives. Long before the enlightenment of such institutions, women are consigned to mental hospitals as a convenience, or for “punishment”, the word of a clergyman certainly sufficient to seal a helpless woman’s fate.
It is intolerable to imagine this woman’s imprisonment for over half her life, but Barry imbues this character with a generosity of spirit as she reflects on life without retreating into anger. In this unusual relationship between doctor and patient, yet another twist of fate yields a poignant connection, injecting hope into a sad tale of innocence abused.