Literary Corner Cafe

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Book Review - The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry "I do remember terrible dark things..."

In The Secret Scripture, Irish novelist, poet, and playwright, Sebastian Barry gives us an intimate look at two persons: Roseanne McNulty and Dr. William Grene. It’s a fascinating look and one I don’t think most readers will soon forget.

Roseanne Clear McNulty has been a patient in the Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital in western Ireland for the last sixty years. A native of Sligo, Ireland, Roseanne believes she could be one hundred years old, though no records indicating her true age can be found, and her admittance records to Roscommon have been destroyed. Now, Roscommon, an old, crumbling, Victorian institution, is going to be destroyed, and its chief psychiatrist, Dr. William Grene must decide which of his patients is well enough to live life in the “real” world, and which should be transferred to the new mental institution that is being readied.

With little to look forward to, Roseanne begins to set down her life story, writing by hand on scrap paper. She desires to leave a history of her life, though she says she is but a “remnant woman,” a thing left over, with no one outside Roscommon who even knows her name.

Roseanne’s haunting reminiscence is seemingly for her eyes only, or for some reader of the future. She writes in secret, and every time she hears someone approaching, she hides the pages of her manuscript under a loose floorboard near her bed.

Since Dr. Grene’s assessment of Roseanne has been made more difficult by the loss of her admittance records, he, too, begins to write – not a memoir, but rather a diary, which he calls his “Commonplace Book.” Through Roseanne’s testimony of herself, and through Dr. Grene’s Commonplace Book, we come to know both of these fascinating and supremely human characters intimately.

Roseanne’s testimony makes up, by far, the bulk of the book, and it’s skillfully and masterfully woven with the writings of Dr. Grene so the effect is of a seamless whole. Although I felt I would have liked it a bit more had Barry made the tone of Dr. Grene’s writing a little more distinct from Roseanne’s, despite the similarity, Roseanne’s is still the more lyrical, the more haunting, the more graceful of the two. She takes us back to her childhood in Sligo, and as she details her life there, her sadness, her grief, and above all, her love for her father, Joseph Clear, a man who cherished the sermons of John Donne and Sir Thomas Browne’s “Religio Medici,” we come to see that Joe Clear was most certainly the love of Roseanne McNulty’s life. Her feelings are so beautifully detailed they are almost palpable. I would have liked to have known more about Joe Clear. His sufferings are so great, he reminded me of Thomas Hardy’s Jude Fawley or Job, himself, yet he is, at all times, totally believable.

This is not to say that Dr. Grene’s sections aren’t arresting. They are. As he searches for the truth about Roseanne, we not only experience his private tragedies along with him, we come to see this gentle and compassionate doctor is also tortured by doubt and riddled with undeserved guilt. And, though her testimony is quite fascinating, the more Dr. Grene learns about Roseanne, the more we begin to doubt her reliability as a narrator.

As Barry weaves Roseanne’s testimony with the words of Dr. Grene’s Commonplace Book, we move from Sligo between the wars to the present and back again. The more Dr. Grene learns about Roseanne, the more questions are raised – in his mind and in the mind of the reader. Were all Roseanne’s tragedies based in reality? Or were some the product of her own imagination? Who should Dr. Grene believe, Roseanne or the Catholic priest, Father Gaunt, whose account of Roseanne’s history differs considerably from her own? Perhaps both are truthful and both are not. Memory, after all, is subjective and filtered through personal experience, and Roseanne, herself, admits that “no one has the monopoly on truth.”

The Secret Scripture is written (but never overwritten) in sensitive, beautiful, lyrical prose, and gorgeous imagery, a testament to Barry’s power as a poet. Although Roseanne and Dr. Grene certainly take center stage, the book is populated by an entire cast of ghostly, though beautifully drawn minor characters – Roseanne’s enigmatic father, her beautiful, emotionally fragile mother, the chilling Father Gaunt, the crusty John Kane, an orderly at Roscommon. Even Eneas McNulty, the protagonist of Barry’s earlier book, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty makes an appearance that will impact the lives of both Roseanne and Dr. Grene forever. Ireland, itself, and its tragic history are present in every page of this elegiac novel, and we come to learn more about the power the Catholic Church wielded over the country’s residents, and how inhumanely the Protestant population, which included Roseanne, was treated.

As gorgeous and haunting as The Secret Scripture is, and as human and unforgettable as are Roseanne and Dr. Grene, some readers are bound to be put off by a melodramatic plot twist that comes very near the end of the book. Although I would have preferred Barry not to have included this twist, I found the book so wonderfully written that it really didn’t bother me that much. Other readers, however, will find that it nullifies all that has gone before. Personally, I trust Barry’s storytelling skills and believe there’s a reason why he decided to include this rather soap operaish and guessable twist.

In the end, I found the means most definitely justified the end, and though I would have rather Barry not included the ending twist, the journey, for me, the gorgeous, heartbreaking, lyrically beautiful journey, was worth the destination. I will not soon forget either Roseanne McNulty or Dr. William Grene, and I will certainly treasure this book and read more of Sebastian Barry.


Recommended: Definitely.

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