The Secret Scripture is the story of Roseanne Clear, now 100-years-old, who has spent most of her life in a mental asylum on the Irish west coast, and her psychiatrist, Dr Grene, who is approaching retirement. Faced with the impending demolition of the asylum, Dr Grene is tasked with deciding whether patients should be moved, or indeed whether some of them are fit to leave. In the case of Roseanne, he needs to delve into why she was committed in the first instance, some sixty years prior. He writes of her:
She is a formidable person and though long periods have gone by when I have not seen her, or only tangentially, I am always aware of her, and try to ask after her. I am afraid she is rather a touchstone for me.
Roseanne meanwhile, has begun to write down her life’s story, penned in secret, and hidden beneath the floorboards of her room. The first-person narration switches between Roseanne’s chronological recollections and Dr Grene’s notes as he faces both professional challenges and the tremors in his private life. Initially, the stories of Roseanne’s early life hold sway over the drier rigours of Dr Grene as she explores her early childhood and her close relationship with her father. However, a balance is soon found as we learn more of Dr Grene’s private life, including his fraught relationship with his wife, Bet, caused by his own infidelity.
There is a special regard between Dr Grene and Roseanne, a friendship of sorts. Tellingly, the only real comfort he finds when Bet dies is in the presence of this old ‘touchstone’. In turn, she wonders whether her secret scripture will be read at all, but takes comfort in the thought that Dr Grene may one day be her reader.
It seems there is no surviving documentation detailing Roseanne’s arrival at the asylum. This changes as Dr Grene begins to find old documents that have survived in various forms in other hospitals that she was once a patient in. Things get interesting as we receive conflicting reports of Roseanne’s life and we are forced to ask ourselves which report is true. Does she recall everything correctly? She admits that her memories and imaginings reside in the same place in her mind. Are they the ravings of someone long-since banished from orderly thought? Or are the people who have plagued her truly harrowing life, such as Fr Gaunt, the local Catholic Priest, in some way to blame for her incarceration? Is his ‘deposition’, made on her committal, accurate? Or are they, in some way both true – has Roseanne altered her memories in such a way as to sanitise terrible truths and therein protect herself?
Fr Gaunt is a singularly malevolent character and is expertly drawn by Barry. Poor old Roseanne retraces her steps, including the awful role he has played in her life, stretching all the way back to her father whom she adored. This includes several particularly harrowing events, including the murder of an Irish ‘Irregular’ by Free-State soldiers in front of Roseanne and her father. Her father unfortunately gets Fr Gaunt involved who is so aggrieved that he dismisses Rosanne’s father from his job in the local graveyard, whereupon he is forced to take up a role as rat catcher. This leads to a particularly horrific scene as remembered by Roseanne, in which he dispatches rats by dousing them in paraffin and throwing them into a fire. Unfortunately, one rat escapes, and – with his daughter (strangely) at his side and watching on – the orphanage in which he is working soon goes up in flames, with young girls jumping out of storeys-high windows all alight with fire. Roseanne recalls the scene:
… they jumped from the ledge in little groups and single, their clothes burning and burning, the flames blown up from the pinnies till they dragged above them like veritable wings, and those burning girls fell the height of that grand old mansion, and struck the cobbles.
Over one hundred children die. Roseanne soon has to face another horror too – the death of her father, from a supposed suicide. After his death, and her mother’s own mental illness, Fr Gaunt encourages her, a Presbyterian, to marry a Catholic and save her soul. She is only in her mid-teens at this point and the man he picks out for her is over fifty, a certain Mr. Brady, who as it turns out, plays a more nefarious role in her life than she allows herself to recall. For that is the crux of her recollections – they are so painful that she seems to adapt them and belittle their misery, thinking that it must not compare to the grief of others.
Fortunately she rejects Fr Gaunt’s offer, but this only serves to rile him and have him act against her at every turn thereafter. She gains work at a café to support her mother and finds a man, Tom McNulty, who saves her at the beach from certain drowning, and who is also a customer at the café. However, his mother rails against their marriage, cuts Roseanne off from Tom, and has Fr Gaunt act to annul the marriage. There is a rage that burns inside Roseanne at this point, a fury that we too share. But things get worse as she tells of her subsequent pregnancy and how her baby is stolen at birth. The birth is both heroic and horrific as Roseanne finds herself caught outside in a fierce storm. Father Gaunt subsequently writes in his clinical deposition that she has killed the baby and her committal is assured. But all is not as it seems. We wonder: did Roseanne have a baby as she recalls? If so, who was the father? And finally, what happened to it – did she really kill it as Fr Gaunt states?
This is fertile territory for an accomplished writer such as Barry. He very skillfully keeps revealing layers of both Roseanne’s and Dr Grene’s lives in such a way as to keep raising questions in the reader’s mind. One of the main themes is that of history – can there be a single version of it, or is it merely like a collective memory and thus prone to human frailties such as imagined and misremembered events, motivations, and emotions(?) The differing recollections and documents explore this theme well.
It all shapes up for a very dramatic climax. I won’t reveal anything here suffice to say there are a few surprises in the gathering together of all these versions of history. Some readers may find the big surprise a little bit stretched, even unnecessary. Others will absolutely love it. Perhaps it is no surprise coming from a writer whose early work was for the theatre where such climaxes are de-rigour and every character, large or small, must play their part. I felt that in the last forty to fifty pages the book accelerated and turned from a quite lyrical and meditative enquiry into past events into almost a thriller with a sledgehammer ‘reveal’. It felt a little bit rushed, to the point where I wondered whether I was reading someone else narrating as Dr Grene ties up the loose ends. I lost the sense of depth in characterisation that had preceded it – which ironically seemed all the more required because of the surprises. But perhaps that is the way people react to such sudden knowledge; it changes them, and they rush to interpret.
There is also a structural issue apparent from the off – why has a patient in Dr Grene’s care spent thirty years without him knowing the details of her history or wanting to find out prior to this forced enquiry – particularly as she is someone he has a strange affection for? Barry does address this ‘lack of professionalism’ as Dr Grene sees it, but there is still a slight credibility gap. Furthermore, Roseanne has spent sixty years in mental institutions during a 20th Century riddled with inhuman treatment of such people, and is now a very adept and alert centurion! Whilst she writes that her notes ‘are my sanity’, it seems a little difficult to believe, but only if one is to be persnickety. And in one place, Dr Grene’s medical knowledge is found wanting. When he hears the voice of his dead wife calling to him one night, he questions whether it is adrenalin causing his physical reactions; surely a physician would know this?
If you can get past the structural issue (as I allowed myself) it is a wonderful read and Barry’s writing is beautiful. I found myself stopping on numerous occasions to underline passages or images that particularly struck me. Highly lyrical, he delves into the inner workings of the mind with acute insight. The Secret Scripture was the hot tip to win the Man Booker Prize in 2008, but was beaten to the post by Aravind Adiga’s somewhat polarising The White Tiger. (Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole was also short-listed that year). I enjoyed Adiga’s book, but it wasn’t a great book. I certainly didn’t love it. It had a vibrant energy which helped sustained its rage. The Secret Scripture is definitely worthy of its Booker short-listing despite my slight misgivings, and is on a par with the winner. It is thus no surprise that it did win the respected James Tait Black Memorial Prize & the Costa (a UK café chain) Book Award.
Interestingly, Sebastian Barry (like Paul Torday’s The Hopeless Life of Charlie Summers & Marilynne Robinson’s Home) has taken a character from a previous work, whether play or fiction, to base a new fictional novel on – in Barry’s case at least twice*. Clearly, when you’re onto a good thing – or a good character – you stick to it. Barry has since written another play. For those of us who enjoy great reads, we can only hope he returns to a format he is very good at.
This completes my 10 Prizes Challenge for 2010! I think you’re supposed to only complete one per month, but I got through about eight before I realised this ‘rule’. This still leaves plenty of other challenges to pursue though…
The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry
Faber & Faber
Source: Personal Library, aka: ‘Bookshelf Rainbow’.
* Willie Dunne in A Long Long Way (short-listed for the 2005 Man Booker Prize), was the son of a fictional character from one of his earlier plays. And Eneas McNulty, brother to Roseanne’s would-be husband Tom in The Secret Scripture appeared in Barry’s earlier The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty.