I seem to be at a crossroads in my life now and two books that I read recently have sparked me to do some deep examining. The first is a mystery by James Sallis called Salt River. His main character, John Turner is an ex-policeman, ex-con, war veteran and former therapist who wonders, "how much a man can lose and how much music he can make with what he has left."
One of the characters talking about the troubles of a young man says that the boy had a hard life, "Not making apologies, and I know he brought a lot of it on himself. But there wasn't much that was easy for him, such that you had to wonder what kept him going." Turner then muses, "I had been wondering that, ever since I could remember, about all of us."
One thing that keeps me going is the pleasure I find in good writing, like this sentence spoken by Doc Oldham in Salt River, "Got more wrong with me than a hospital full of leftovers. Asthma, diabetes, heart trouble. Enough metal in me to sink a good-size fishing boat."
Part of the great pleasure of the second book, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry, was listening to Wanda McCaddon read it on CD as I read it. I sometimes read ahead of the recording; sometimes listened to fresh parts that I hadn't read, told in the narrator's rich Irish accent. What a nice way to enhance the reading!
The story reveals two very different versions of an Irish girl's life. Roseanne McNulty, once the most beautiful girl in all of Sligo, is incarcerated in the Roscommon Mental hospital. Now 100 years old, she is writing her life story and hides it beneath the floorboards in her bedroom.
Meanwhile the hospital is preparing to close and her caregiver, Dr. Grene is evaluating the patients to decide which ones can be returned to society. He begins to visit Roseanne and to listen to her story. He also discovers a document written by a local priest whose story of Roseanne is very different from her own tale. As they come to know each other, they uncover long buried secrets about themselves.
Roseanne says, "My father's curious happiness was most clearly evident in the retelling of this story. It was as if such an event were a reward to him for being alive, a little gift of narrative that pleased him so much it conferred on himself, in dreams and waking, a sense of privilege, as if such little scraps of stories and events composed for him a ragged gospel."
I think that this is also true of Roseanne and the telling of her own story and how she coped with the events of her life. Along with her story, we are given glimpses of life in a small community in Ireland from the early part of the 20th century to the present time.
Roseanne and Dr. Grene come to respect each other. He says, "There has never been a person in an old people's home that hasn't looked around dubiously at the other inhabitants. They are the old ones, they are the club that no one wants to join. But we are never old to ourselves. That is because at close of day the ship we sail in is the soul, not the body."
Dr. Grene is also grieving the recent death of his wife."Too much thinking on death. Yet it is the music of our time. As the millennium passed fools like myself thought we were about to taste a century of peace." Roseanne observes him with compassionate eyes, "he was looking into that strange place, the middle distance, the most mysterious, human, and rich of all distances. And from his eyes came slowly tears, immaculate human tears, before the world touches them."
How can you go wrong with such lovely language!