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Sebastian Barry: The Secret Scripture

Before you read the book:

Though it can’t be true, it felt like Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture (2008) took me longer to read than the much longer A Fraction of the Whole.  There is a lot more lurking in the prose here, so that slowed me down.  But the main force against my quick pace was the strange syntax in this book  – it’s a bit tricky.  That is not necessarily a bad thing since the passages are in the first person and the narrators do have some interesting dialectical styles.  Still, I was somewhat concerned at first that the style would get in the way, but I got over it and at times it began to feel natural as I got used to the characters’ voices, and I was able to let the prose work on me, which was pleasantly haunting and hopeful, like the nice US cover.

The book begins at Roscommon, an insane asylum in County Sligo, Ireland, where Roseanne McNulty (a connection to Eneas McNulty from Barry’s The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty – which I have not read) has resided for, well, who knows, maybe sixty of her maybe one hundred years.  The asylum is about to be demolished, so the man in charge, Doctor Grene, who has been taking care of the residents there for the last thirty or so years of his professional career, is using the pending demolition and transfer of the patients as a reason to investigate whether the patients should be there or not.  Roseanne’s is a particularly compelling case to him.

The narrative shifts back and forth between Roseanne’s ”testimony” that she is writing and Doctor Grene’s purportedly clinical observations.  Roseanne is telling “the truth” about her life before she was put away.  Doctor Grene is writing down his analysis of her story which he’s getting not from her but from a testimonial given by Father Gaunt, a Catholic priest who knew Roseanne as a child and was around when she was deemed insane.  From Roseanne’s narrative, we have reason to dislike, if not distrust, Father Gaunt:

And such a small, clean man when crossed was like a scything blad, the grass, the brambles and the stalks of human nature went down before him, as my father discovered.

Father Guant has taken full advantage of the power vested in the Catholic church during Ireland’s early twentieth-century political upheaval.  Upon the death of her father, Roseanne, a Protestant, is approached by Father Gaunt:

Remember, Roseanne, grief is two years long.  You will not make a good thought for a long time.  Be advised by me, let me advice you in loco parentis, do you see, in place of your father let me be your father in this, as a priest ought.

The Catholic Church’s power to push its views in the political arena and private lives of the Irish is one of the points of the narrative, but much of the struggles of early twentieth-century Ireland are highlighted as Roseanne recounts her early years into her marriage with Tom McNulty, a Catholic.

As Doctor Grene reads through Father Gaunt’s version of events (though we always get them filtered through Doctor Grene’s own imperfect memory), Roseanne gives us, but not Doctor Grene, her side, and then hides the pages in her room.  Perhaps not too surprisingly, there are gaps in the narratives.  I definitely enjoyed Roseanne’s portion of the story; however, the part that won me over was Doctor Grene’s own demons: grief and guilt.  As much as he wants to focus on Roseanne’s story, his private grief comes out in touching, even intimate ways through his sometimes dreamlike admissions.  All of this culminates in an ending that I can only discuss in the comments for fear of spoiling it for other readers, and the book deserves other readers.  That said, the biggest problem I had with the book was the ending.

For the most part, though, I enjoyed this book despite its flaws in narrative and in style.  As far as style is concerned, at times Barry’s poetic side comes out in beautiful and painful insights:

There is a moment in the history of every beaten child when his mind parts with hopes of dignity – pushes off hope like a boat without a rower and lets it go as it will on the stream, and resigns himself to the tally stick of pain.

And here is a real winner; one of my favorite lines in recent memory:

It seemed as he moved forward, his intention changed, humanity cleared from his face, something private and darker than humanity, something before we were given our troublesome souls, stirred in his eyes.

At other times it’s still insightful and furthers the points in the narrative but comes out a bit more forced -  particularly disappointing when Barry sort of points it out:

“I do remember terrible dark things, and loss, and noise, but it is like one of those terrible dark pictures that hang in churches, God knows why, because you cannot see a thing in them.”

“Mrs McNulty, that is a beautiful description of traumatic memory.”

All in all, though not a perfect book by any means, I liked The Secret Scripture.  It definitely bridges the gap between the five books I haven’t really liked on the longlist (The Lost Dog, Child 44, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, The Enchantress of Florence, and The White Tiger) and the two I did like (Netherland and A Fraction of the Whole).

After you read the book:

We’re getting closer to the end of the Booker longlist, and I am anxious to write about other books and to dwell on some of their themes a bit more in depth in this section.  But for now, let’s discuss potential spoilers – including my biggest problem with the book – in the comments!

17 thoughts on “Sebastian Barry: The Secret Scripture

  1. SPOILER ALERT:

    Alright, my main gripe with this book was the ending, which completely took me by surprise, though in hindsight I see the clues. Here my surprise, however, wasn’t that pleasant. I like endings that try to get the reader to rethink what has just been read, but this ending didn’t really do that for me. It felt like just a gimmick, a writer’s trick. What was the point?

    The book it reminded me of was McEwan’s far superior and nicely resolved Atonement. There the ending was perfect, though a type of slight of hand, because it made the book’s main themes – redemption, forgiveness – really stand out. How do you seek forgiveness when those who you’ve wronged are long gone? Perhaps by engaging in a great work of metafiction!

    But the ending here in The Secret Scripture just felt like a cheap trick that lapsed into bathos rather than the more pure and literary pathos.

    It didn’t ruin the book for me. In fact I quite liked Doctor Grene’s struugle to be forthcoming with Roseanne, but I fail to see how it makes the book resolve in a way to make the reader think.

  2. Isabel says:

    It seems to be a story of memories and memories can be inaccurate. Does the writing reflect these aspects of remembering?

  3. Yes, Isabel, the writing does reflect the inaccuracy of memories, sometimes subtley and sometimes explicitly. Roseanne is trying to remember her past, and though she feels certain about events, she does question their accuracy. Doctor Grene is writing from memory what he remembers from Father Gaunt’s account, which came from Father Gaunt’s memory. It’s all pretty unknowable which is right when they contradict! I found that aspect of the novel to be well done and enjoyable.

  4. KevinfromCanada says:

    SPOILER ALERT

    Your comments about the ending are 100 per cent dead right. I felt in the first two-thirds of the book that Barry had done quite a good job (not perfect but good enough) of setting the tension and conflict between different memories and versions of the truth (as you discuss in both your review and comment above). The theme was strong enough that I was willing to overlook some of the other questions I had about the book. (e.g. I also thought of McEwan while reading this book — at his best, he always ask the reader to suspend belief in some aspect of reality and accept a different version. In his good books, he then rewards that concession from the reader.) I can’t believe a 100 year old, institutionalized and alone for 60 years, could write such a diary, but if that’s what it takes to get the book going, okay by me. What caused me to tip into disfavor with this book (here’s the SPOILER) was that Barry in in the last section systematically provides a not very convincing answer for every uncertainty he has created. For me it was like a series of explosions going off, each one destroying a part of the book I quite liked.

  5. I agree Kevin. I think the reason the ending didn’t completely destroy the book for me was because I read it quickly. The rest of the book, thankfully, remained much stronger in my mind. Thanks for your insights!

  6. KevinfromCanada says:

    For those following the Booker longlist, Trevor’s last comment highlights, for me, the axiom of this year’s list: Whatever book is your favorite, be prepared to excuse some pretty severe flaws. I can do that with The Lost Dog (others can’t and I understand why). I am on book 10 and say that even the ones that I like require a very generous attitude from the reader.

  7. I’m in complete agreement, Kevin. Sure am looking forward to getting back to my own pile of books!

  8. I was mortified about the ending! I love Sebastian Barry’s writing, A Long Long Way, for me the best book that didn’t win the Booker but the ending of TSS felt like too huge a flaw to absorb for me and it wasn’t needed imho. Barry writes so superbly that he prepares you for uncertainty and the book could have easily supported an ending that left gaps and silences, we’d have coped.An element of ambiguity would have meant this book would still be sparking around in my mind even now but sadly it’s settled into a.n other good read in my memory, not a very very special one.

  9. I agree, dgr. Had he ended it with no resolution, it would have been better. And though I at first thought I could forgive the ending because it was quick for me and the rest of the book stood out, it turns out that was just “at the time.” With more time between me and this book, the ending is the only thing sticking! Which is sad, because I enjoyed the rest of the book quite a lot and it’s now going to oblivion.

  10. Stewart says:

    Even though I’ve pretty much reneged on this year’s attempt to read the longlist, I think I’m going to have to read this soon, if only to find out what this disappointing ending is for myself.

  11. KevinfromCanada says:

    Stewart: Having seen your comments on other books, I’d save reading this one for a month or so. Only my thought, however.

  12. Stewart, it is a good book in many ways, so your time won’t be wasted if you dislike the ending as much as some of us. At least I don’t regret the time I spent with it.

    To be fair, I think the reason I disliked the ending so much was because I was really enjoying the rest of the book. The contrast was startling. Had the book not been as good up to that point, I probably wouldn’t have been so disappointed.

  13. The New York Times Book Review got around to this book today, in a very short review. Click here for the review.

  14. nico says:

    Trevor, we are on the same page, I totally agree with your analysis and treasure the first portions of the book (he is a poet, no doubt there). Also, since memory is unreliable, the ending would have allowed more vacuums and not a conventional and schematic ‘fill in the gaps’ resolution.

  15. Luciana says:

    One thing that threw me was the things that divided the narratives. What on earth are they called?

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