Title: The Secret Scripture
Author: Sebastian Barry
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Available: Available now from your local bookshop
Sebastian Barry, it seems, has dedicated himself to telling the story of the Ireland we don’t talk about. The rough and ready, fierce and fearsome. By all accounts Ireland has a rocky history. From prehistoric violence of the Celts, and the raiders from elsewhere, right up until modern times with the blood-soaked revolution and “Troubles” of Northern Ireland, we’ve had our fair share of fighting. However, this macabre history seems to have left behind a country willing to fight for what it wants (some of the time) and yet able to forgive those who have committed wrongs against us (as with the fighting, some of the time). In his novel, The Secret Scripture, Barry delves into the shortcomings of one of Ireland’s most notorious institutions, the mental health service, with the backdrop of the civic strife of war both within and without the borders.
This dichotomy of fighter and forgiver is reflected in the main characters, Roseanne McNulty and Dr. Grene. Roseanne, a veritably ancient lady at over 100 years old, has been committed to the “lunatic asylum” where she resides under the somewhat distracted eye of Dr. Grene, a psychiatrist from England, taken up residence in Roscommon. Rose’s sojourn in the asylum has left her disconnected from the outside world, however, in the beginning it is not quite revealed why it is Roseanne is so hopelessly alone, instantly drawing us in with the tantalizing mystery surrounding the woman writing to us so frankly in her diary. This technique is definitely used to the fullest by Barry to show us the Roseanne, in spite of being wronged by so many in her life, holds no grudges against these people.
Contrasting this, Dr. Grene intermingles the story of his scornful wife in his record of the hospital (his commonplace book) which very rapidly loses the guise of professional record-keeping and becomes a personal therapy of sorts. I don’t want to spoil anything here, so I’ll not say much more on that. Dr. Grene also gives the insight into the closure of the old facility and allows the readers a glimpse of what was going on in the background of the “present day” of when Roseanne is writing her chronicle. It is through this commonplace book that we learn about the others in the hospital who are all under assessment by Dr. Grene to see if they should be “released” from the asylum or moved to the new facility.These people are often described as not actually requiring mental health care per se but rather were committed at a time when that was what people did with inconvenient relatives or those with undiagnosable conditions. As such the tough decision falls on Dr. Grene to keep them “locked up” or send them into “exile” in Grene’s own words. Through this work Grene becomes obsessed with this old woman who seems so banal in every way besides her extreme age, Roseanne.
I found the way Barry intertwined the two characters’ lives to be nothing short of masterful, each has echoes of the other’s at different times, for example Roseanne’s father has a funny anecdote of an “Indian angel” who defied death in a motorcycle crash. This idea of an Indian guardian comes up later in the doctor’s own history as his job was bequeathed to him by an Indian doctor of vague acquaintance. This kind of recurrence of events is common in novels and often becomes trite and nauseating, especially in a book of just over 300 pages. However, Barry manages to avoid cliché just enough with these overlaps. Although perhaps not later on in the novel. This technique is again used as our characters’ lives are reflecting the Ireland in which they are describing, with Roseanne’s tumultuous story in the 20s and 30s being just as violent as the Ireland at the time; Grene’s Ireland is likewise filled with internal struggle, but not always of a violent nature.
As The Guardian’s Joseph O’Connor pointed out way back in 2008, when the novel was released originally, the Barry writes like some heavenly blend of dramatist and poet. The beauty of the prose in this novel was nothing short of astounding adding further to the acerbic political and social observations of Barry which are also strongly stated throughout the piece. “Women were wiser and went off to America and England double-quick, before their boots were sunk and stuck for good in the mire of Ireland” is but one statement revealing the backdrop of the 20s-30s, 40s, and even 50s in the novel that is charged with social commentary. Should you read this book and I do HIGHLY recommend you do, I’m sure far more will jump out at you, particularly anyone who has lived in Ireland or in fact any country in which the rights of women and the mentally ill are particularly strained (AKA every country ever).
However, going back to the cliché mentioned earlier, I’m sure you haven’t let that one slide readers, don’t worry neither have I. There were some stunning descriptions of Ireland in the novel, of places I’ve been and could picture just as described giving me goosebumps while reading, but there were also others which left me cold and surprised that Barry left them in. Perhaps others would call these the “Yeatsian” references, Yeats himself being from Sligo this is probably on purpose and my brow is simply not high enough to appreciate them. Furthering this literary cliché the story did decline towards the last 20 pages and I found my eyes rolling more than once as I finished the novel. But no more on that as I did just highly recommend it to you!
TL;DR: GREAT book, wonderful prose, a touching story. 4/5*