The Secret Scripture Sebastian Barry (2008) Viking (2008) 300 pp
Though it can’t be true, it felt like Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture 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).