Review: The Secret Scripture, Sebastian Barry

 This was a beautifully written novel, both startling and haunting.  It won the award for the Costa Book of the Year but as I reached the end, it did not leave me with the sense of amazement that I have come to expect from the finalists.  This was an uncomfortable read at times, I even considered putting it down at one point which I never do.  Sebastian Barry’s book is painful and tries to expose some very painful truths about Irish history – part of my problem therefore is that my family is Irish and they do not care to expose the hurt.  The Secret Scripture speaks of the very worst being done in the name of religion, the slaughter of love done in the name of God.  The narration is shared between the forgotten centenarian Roseanne McNulty and her psychiatrist Dr Grene.

Roseanne has been committed to a psychiatric institution for over sixty years, her records are long-lost but as hospital faces closure, Dr Grene searches for her true history and finds himself captivated by her past.  Roseanne is reluctant to confide in him but writes down her secrets and hides them under the floorboards – still, the reader is left uncertain about how far to trust her narration.  She is an old lady, an old lady with secrets to hide and who may or may not have been committed for good reason.  Still, it is hardly a surprise to discover that she has been the victim of those who never had her welfare in mind.

Feminism takes a bad rap – I have heard otherwise rational-speaking females pronounce that it is responsible for all that is wrong with our world.  Still, if the women’s liberation movement have made any advances that prevent women being summarily incarcerated against their will and without charge, I am going to stick my neck out and call that a Good Thing.  The idea of someone’s life being snatched from them in this awful way makes me shudder.  Roseanne’s story is uncomfortable because although she may be fictional, her situation is not.

Religion and Ireland are uneasy bedfellows, the scars of sectarianism run deep.  Roseanne comes from a working-class Presbyterian family, her mother is English and her father is in disgrace.  She finds herself a vulnerable figure in Sligo with nobody to speak for her.  Even the reader is encouraged to distrust her, her view of events is undermined by the scraps of documentation that remain; even the sympathetic Dr Grene realises belatedly that he has dismissed her story because he has not looked at the clues properly.  There are not enough beds for every resident to move on to the new facility and so Dr Grene must decide which inmates to release ‘into the community’, forcing himself to face which of his patients were only ever committed on social rather than medical grounds.

I love Ireland, after a childhood which felt slightly nomadic, in many ways Ireland has been the constant in my life.  I spent every summer there at my grandparents’ house, often deposited by my mother while she got on with whatever else needed doing.  When I was five, I played doctors and nurses with a boy who I still sometimes see in the town centre – when I was eight, he asked me to marry him but these days we just blush and walk on.  Still, there has always been something else to Ireland, like sitting down without ever feeling comfortable.  My grandfather was a policeman and it is only now, five years after his death, that I feel able to say that publicly.  From very young, I knew that the phrase “Don’t talk to strangers” had a very different meaning in Ireland.  There is a darkness to the country that goes far beyond the legendarily short summers and bitter winters.  Roseanne McNulty is a fairly obvious metaphor for the country itself; an old, old lady who loved dearly and was treated appallingly.  Roseanne bears the scars of crimes wrought by religion, crimes by men and the failure of love – she was well-known for her great beauty when she was young, but ends her days shrivelled and forgotten.  Oh Ireland, what have we done to you?

Stepping back from the metaphor, it is tempting to see this as a simple story of womanhood abused – Maggie O’Farrell wrote The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox with similar themes but Barry’s novel packs a greater punch.  Roseanne sought sanctuary in her marriage to the man she loved but her past and the eagle-eyed local priest would not let her go.  I was strongly reminded of Jean McConville, that other flesh and blood lady who converted to Catholicism for her husband but once widowed found herself alone in hostile company.  Kidnapped in front of her ten children in 1972, last week a man was finally arrested for her murder.  Her family did not get her body back until 2003.  I feel a huge sense of weariness when I read stories like this, a sorrow for people who have so forgotten their humanity that they are capable of such wickedness.  To do so in the name of religion turns my stomach.

I have faith – it infuriates me how faith has become the object of ridicule, as if believing in something higher than oneself is eccentric at best.  Today is Good Friday, a day for commemorating the great sacrifice of our Saviour.  Still, for all that, it is also important to remember that all have sinned and fall short, including priests and ministers.  Roseanne suffered from a priest who sought to and succeeding in putting her marriage asunder, her faith and her father’s faith is disregarded – while Jesus may order those without sin to cast the first stone, 1930s Sligo was not so merciful.  I found the ultimate ending to The Secret Scripture as unnecessary as it was predictable – I saw it coming, I hoped it would go differently but the cliche could not be stopped.  If we return to the metaphor of Roseanne as Ireland, it works slightly better, to have that recognition of kinship.  Otherwise that ‘twist’ takes a lyrical and beguiling novel into cheesy made-for-television movie territory.

To look on the old, the helpless, the abandoned, it is easy to forget that they have their own stories, their own histories, identities, loves, losses, families, beliefs – The Secret Scripture considers how we can piece together the sum of someone’s life.  Memory is unreliable, even Roseanne admits that it is not to be trusted, always shifting and as changeable as the moon.  This novel feels incomplete, there are no firm answers, no certainties and we must rely on our own judgement to judge Roseanne McNulty’s life. I understand that it is part of a wider series about the McNulty family and I feel tempted to read The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty but I felt that this novel proved only that the truth of anybody requires a certain amount of faith.  Apparently The Secret Scripture is to be made into a film, perhaps the time has come to honour them.

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The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry
Published by Faber & Faber on October 2nd 2008
Genres: Fiction, General
Pages: 320
Goodreads
ISBN: 9780571247523


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