The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

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The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Paul Curd
Reviewed by Paul Curd
Summary: Barry's latest Booker-shortlisted, Costa-nominated novel explores the human impact of Ireland's troubled 20th century history. A very, very good book indeed, beautifully written from start to finish. It is, however, let down by a surprisingly poor ending – but is a recommended read nevertheless.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 300 Date: May 2008
Publisher: Faber & Faber
ISBN: 978-0571215287

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The Secret Scripture finds Sebastian Barry on familiar territory, delving into the recent troubled history of Ireland. When the novel begins, Roseanne McNulty is nearing her 100th birthday as a patient in Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital. She is completely alone, without friend or family, 'a thing left over, a remnant woman.' Roseanne has been secretly writing her 'Testimony of Herself', her own memories of her life story in Sligo, a place she describes as a cold town, a dark spot with a black river. 'Sligo made me and Sligo undid me,' she says, and over the course of the novel we find out how this is so.

Meanwhile, Dr William Grene, Roscommon Hospital's senior psychiatrist, is keeping his own 'Commonplace Book' to record his thoughts as he assesses his patients for community care ahead of the impending closure of the asylum. The story is told through the device of these alternating narratives, Roseanne's 'secret scriptures' hidden beneath the floorboards of her room and Dr Grene's personal notes hidden safely at home.

Roseanne's testimony begins with her father. Joe Clear, 'a celestial-minded Presbyterian man', worked as the superintendent of a Catholic graveyard. It is clear that Roseanne idolized her father, and all her rose-tinted memories of him continue to reinforce her love for him. But how reliable are her memories? For example, she remembers in fine detail the day he climbed to the top of the graveyard tower with a sackful of hammers and feathers to demonstrate that 'all things fall at the same rate, in the realm of theory'. The feathers, when dropped, should reach the ground at the same time as the hammers. They don't. The hammers fall and the feathers swirl away. 'I am standing there, eternally, straining to see, a crick in the back of my neck, peering and straining, if for no other reason than for love of him.'

The happy childhood Roseanne remembers is savagely disrupted when a group of young irregulars turn up at the little graveyard temple one evening, demanding that Joe should bury their dead comrade and that Roseanne should fetch a priest to absolve him. Roseanne runs to Fr Gaunt, the embodiment of the Irish Catholic Church of the time. The episode ends in violence, and Fr Gaunt finds that he can no longer support Joe's tenure at the graveyard. He is given the humiliating job of rat-catcher, and Roseanne's mother drifts into insanity.

Roseanne's father dies soon after, and Fr Gaunt quickly tries to marry her off: 'Of course I will be of the opinion that you are in gravest error and your mortal soul is lost if you stay where you are.' But she resists and, thanks to a good deed done on beech at Strandhill, Roseanne is offered a job at the Café Cairo. Here, she spends some happy years among 'the steaming boilers, and the beautiful many-ledged cake holders, and the river of silver knives and spoons, and those lovely forks used only for delicate cake . . . and the touches of Egypt no one had ever seen.' It is also here that she meets her future husband, Tom McNulty, brother of the roving Eneas McNulty. But just as her renewed happiness reaches its peak (literally, in fact, on the peak of Knocknarea) the malign Fr Gaunt reappears and Roseanne's life is unravelled.

In searching the official records for the 'true' history of Roseanne's life, Dr Grene finds Fr Gaunt's deposition that led to Roseanne's incarceration. The priest refers to her father being in the Royal Irish Constabulary. Dr Grene tells her, 'The document said your father was an RIC man in Sligo during the height of the troubles in the twenties.' This upsets Roseanne. 'It must be someone else's document,' she protests.

Fr Gaunt's deposition also suggests Roseanne's father was tarred and feathered by men from the IRA, who beat him with hammers at the top of the cemetery tower, before murdering him – a very different account of the 'experiment' recalled in her own testimony. So which account is to be believed? 'No one has the monopoly on truth,' Roseanne says. 'Not even myself, and that is a vexing and worrying thought.' This novel, like a paper presented at a symposium by Dr Grene, is a clever examination of 'versions of memory, the absolute fascist certainty of memory, the bullying oppression of memory'.

Perhaps it was the device of switching between the two narrators, or perhaps it was because of the amount of 'seeding' for future events in the story, but I must confess that it took me a little while to get into this book. But I am glad that I did. Because for most of the novel I was engrossed, both by the quality of the prose and by the unravelling of the tale. Despite supposedly being penned by a sere old woman and a psychiatrist, the language of the book is beautifully poetic. And the mystery of Roseanne's incarceration is peeled away like a piece of high quality detective fiction.

Having said that, the ending is terrible – a melodramatic twist that you can see coming a mile off but can't believe Barry would ever consider. But he does, and the too-neat tying up of all the loose ends does rather spoil what would otherwise be a tremendous book.

Aside from my reservations, I really enjoyed this novel. Roseanne's story is 'a sort of human vista of trouble and events,' according to Dr Grene, and in this way The Secret Scripture is very much a companion piece to Sebastian Barry's earlier novel The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty (1998), covering much of the same ground but from a different perspective. For where Eaneas McNulty is forced to live in exile, travelling the world, like Virgil's Aeneas, Roseanne McNulty is confined to mental institutions for much of her adult life. As Roseanne's one-time husband, Tom, says, 'The whole of Ireland is just a madhouse now.' This, then, is Roseanne's version of the 20th Century history of Ireland.

I can fully understand why this book was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize. I can also understand why it didn't win. But it is, nevertheless, a very good book and a recommended read.

Further reading suggestion: Obviously, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, or anything else by Sebastian Barry (as all his novels explore the same themes and issues). For a different take on the Irish civil war, try Lovers' Hollow by Orna Ross.

Booklists.jpg The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry is in the Costa Book Awards 2008.

Booklists.jpg The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry is in the Independent Booksellers' Prize 2009.

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