(Faber and Faber, 2008); pbk £7.99
The Secret Scripture comes from the pen of acclaimed Irish author, Sebastian Barry. In 2008, it was named the Costa Book of the Year. The novel tells the story of Roseanne McNulty, who has been a patient in a mental hospital for more years than anyone can remember. With the hospital about to close and Roseanne approaching her hundredth birthday, psychiatrist Dr Grene must piece together the flimsy records of the past in order to decide Roseanne’s future. However, Roseanne has been keeping records of her own, a secret journal of her turbulent childhood in 1930s Ireland and her subsequent life as a young woman, a wife and a mother.
In choosing to tell the story primarily in Roseanne’s voice, Barry has presented the reader with a nebulous puzzle from the first page. This is a first-hand account of the old lady’s history, but the nature of history, as Dr Grene reminds us, is only “memory in decent sentences.” As such. truth and fact presented by such “syntactical means” is “treacherous and unreliable.” As Roseanne’s tentative memoir unfolds, it peels away the layers of a much greater narrative, a troubled cultural and religious past that contemporary Ireland is yet to come to terms with.
Barry’s prose is lyrical and commanding. At times, that prose seems to drown the otherwise well-crafted voice of Roseanne. The protagonist is a self-educated woman from a rural background who has been institutionalised from a very young age; her often flowery philosophising can therefore be incongruous and jarring. That said, Barry’s language is rich and descriptive: his words breathe life into the strands, tides and weather patterns of the West Coast of Ireland. The book is presented as a dual narrative, composed of “Roseanne’s Testimony of herself” and “Dr Grene’s Commonplace Book.” Such dated terms might initially confound, but they provide a temporal analogy of the mental institution as an remnant of a less-enlightened age. Both Roseanne and Dr Grene’s institutionalisation has cast them adrift in a rising tide of inevitable change. The past, thus, seems to provide an anchor of sorts, the novel’s narrative pace reflecting the almost urgent need for the wrongs of the past to be righted before time runs out.
Roseanne recalls her childhood in Sligo in the 1930s, when a person was defined by their past deeds, politics and religion. Through her patchy and often conflicting account, we learn of her teenage years, her marriage and her fateful encounters with the all-powerful Father Gaunt. In Roseanne, Barry has crafted a strong and engaging character. She is by turns secretive and also wily and spirited, both as a young girl and as an elderly woman. The reader is never certain whether the gaps in her story are accidental or intentional, an innocent consequence of the vagaries of memory or a form of self-preservation. Memory, if neglected, declares Roseanne, “becomes like a box room…in an old house, its contents jumbled about…” She even concedes that her account of events may be unreliable. Dr Grene, by contrast, is a man of science; he deals in facts and feels compelled to get to the bottom of the old lady’s story. His own recollections tend to be rambling and seemingly unimportant and often stall the progress of Roseanne’s story. However, he comes into his own as the narrative proceeds. Aware of his own frailties, he is determined to “do the right thing” and uncover the truth about why Roseanne was committed.
The Secret Scripture is a intersting chronicle of a life recalled through the unreliable prism of memory. Barry presents a thoughtful, disturbing insight into differing versions of the past and also the failings and inconsistencies of recollection. Although the grim reality of misogyny and misuse of power are implicit, Roseanne’s story is all the more poignant considering recent cases of institutional abuse that have come to light.