The Secret Scripture, by Sebastian Barry

This is a quiet, heartfelt novel from 2008. It tells two stories, one by Roseanne Clear McNulty, who is one hundred years old and confined to a mental hospital, and the other by Dr. Grene, who is a psychiatrist at that hospital. Roseanne is the main character, and she is writing a secret memoir to help herself understand the unhappy past that led to her confinement. Dr. Grene is writing his own journal about his search to learn whether or not Roseanne needs to be under his care in the new hospital being built for his patients.

And their mutual search for the truth keeps the reader involved, with Roseanne’s search seeming to be more emotional, and Dr. Grene’s more intellectual. Indeed, an underlying theme of the novel is the tension in their revolutionary Irish society among one person’s idea of the truth, another person’s idea, and the actual truth.

Roeseanne sums up her search for the truth about her past in this way, which mirrors the author’s theme: “For history as far as I can see is not the arrangement of what happens, in sequence and in truth, but a fabulous arrangement of surmises and guesses held up as a banner against the assault of withering truth.”

This search for truth among many versions applies most particularly to Roseanne’s memory versus that of the local priest Father Gaunt, regarding what happened to her father when he died, as well as to her baby, whose death she may or may not have been the cause.

It is no small achievement that, except for hospital visits that the doctor makes to Roseanne, all the events here take place in the past, and yet we read on eagerly to learn the elusive truth of that past. What did happen in Roseanne’s youth? How did her farther die? How did her marriage dissolve? How did she become confined? And yet when we do learn the major truth about Roseanne and her baby, I was not entirely convinced. For me, it is too much a surprise for its own sake. It undoubtedly must have seemed to the author to be an intellectually perfect conclusion to tie his loose ends together. But I resisted accepting it. It was not for me emotionally satisfying. And it seemed to belong to another novel, given its tenor.

Roseanne, however, is a richly conceived character who has lived an interesting life. She grows up during the Irish troubles, with one faction of Irishmen fighting another in their search for independence. At the age of 12, she is confronted by the murder of an Irregular; and when her father dies, she denies reports that he was killed because he was a policeman. She grows up in a world of denial, in an atmosphere of family trust and political betrayal, as well as a world of masculine cruelty in the name of patriotism.

Religious tension also plays a role in this novel. And the Catholic Church, in the guise of Father Gaunt, comes closest to being the villain in the novel. For Roseanne is a Presbyterian, and a beautiful one whose father is dead and mother confined. So, to avoid her being a temptation to Sligo boys, Father Gaunt says, he matches her to a Catholic, Tom McNulty—despite Tom’s mother opposing her son’s marriage to a Protestant. And then, when the priest spots Roseanne in the company of another man, an Irregular (rebels the Church opposes), he interprets the worst, tells the McNulty family, and arranges an annulment—on the false basis of nymphomania. Which leaves Roseanne alone in a decrepit cottage at the edge of the sea.

Until she becomes pregnant. Which raises another question. When the child is born, it suddenly disappears. How? Why? The explanation, a throw-away line near the end, is not convincing.

In the continuous unfolding of Roseanne’s tragic life, author Barry not only deepens our sympathy for Roseanne but also writes with a beautiful but simple style, appropriate for her painful search among elusive memories. Which began with her innocence and her inability to understand what truly happened back then. And our sympathy is furthered by the doctor’s effort to understand her past, as well as his own responsibility for the present.

The novel works so well because these are two very sympathetic characters, and the reader easily identifies with them, including with a doctor who wants to learn the truth about Roseanne as much as she does herself. For he feels guilty that he has not paid sufficient to her and to why she is in his institution. And senses that his research into her world of rebellion and contradiction will lead to a final truth.

What makes this work so convincing and so moving is that Roseanne believes what she remembers is true, even as her memories change, even as she contradicts herself and does not realize her contradictions. And even as the doctor relates to us different conclusions, both by the priest and by the McNulty family, among others—with some of those conclusions being true, but others presented as facts to achieve a purpose, such as her confinement. It is a distortion of reality that mirrors the distortion on another plane in Irish society, as the political struggle grows more complex.

That the reader learns the true reality but that only one of the characters does so is a disappointment. Especially since the one who does not is Roseanne, the main character, the one we identify with, the one we are most concerned about. This is perhaps why the judges, in offering the Costa Book Award, said that the novel won despite the ending. That the beauty of its style and the richness of its human understanding were sufficient.

This novel inspires me to read more of Barry’s works, especially the one about Eneas McNulty, who plays a minor role here. Yes, minor, despite a significant encounter with Roseanne. One might ask, in fact, if their relationship has more significance in that other work, for it seems here more a matter of convenience for the author. Just as another convenience regards the explanation of why Dr. Grene is at the same institution as Roseanne.

Barry almost won the Man Booker with another novel on a similar theme. I can understand why, and will pursue more of this author so concerned about truth and innocence, reality and memory, and transgression and conscience. (December, 2014)

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Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel

The reader is immediately eased into this 2013 successor to Mantel’s earlier novel, Wolf Hall, this world of Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell, and the new queen Anne Boleyn. As they discuss the complicated era in which they live, we enter a world of politics, personal rivalries, religious issues, and international relations. And it involves up to 70 historical figures, which are, fortunately, listed in five pages at the beginning of the novel—to which one must refer constantly.

First, we meet the King and Thomas Cromwell on a visit to Wolf Hall, the family home of the Seymour family. They toy with and debate each other over the ordinary issues confronting both themselves and the kingdom, and we listen like a fly on the wall. Then we get closer to Cromwell on a trip into the heart of England that gives us another feel of the era. During all of this, we observe Henry’s concern for succession and the future of his reign. This involves Lady Katherine, the king’s ex-wife who is dying, her daughter Mary (Queen of Scots), Anne’s daughter Elizabeth, almost a baby, and Henry’s desire to have a son as a successor.

We also witness the waning influence of Anne, her denial of it, the King’s early interest in Jane Seymour, and Cromwell’s trying to balance his own interests with those of the King. Should the possible future queen, Mary, be allowed to visit her ill mother? Should Katherine be comforted by visits from friendly emissaries from Europe? Can Cromwell display human sympathy for her and also be loyal to his King’s political needs? And how can he serve the king while acknowledging Queen Anne’s determined use of her waning power—a queen Cromwell himself detests.

But after this absorbing beginning, the book slows down, and is filled with maneuvering. This is when Cromwell agrees to help Henry replace Anne with Jane Seymour. Anne is determine to hang onto her power, and particularly warns Cromwell not to oppose her. Meanwhile, the Seymour family, aware of Henry’s fascination with Jane, joins forces with a former regime, which includes Catholics, to regain power. Henry himself is concerned mainly with having a son, which he determines Anne cannot give him. And Cromwell, who depends on Henry for his power and who despises Anne, must maneuver carefully if he is to betray Anne but not betray Henry.

As a result, there is considerable talk, as the various plotters seek out each other’s positions, each other’s goals, and plan their own strategy. But there is little forward movement, little action that prompts a reaction. The talk itself is interesting, and the revelations about each character are interesting, but it is mainly Cromwell trying to out maneuver others, and meeting little resistance. In the end, there is only occasional drama.

There is a moment of drama when Anne is arrested—her denials, her acceptance of her fate—and taken to the Tower of London. There is another when Henry is frustrated that the case has not been made about Anne’s adultery, and he rails against Cromwell, threatening him if he fails to make the case. There are also brief references to Cromwell working too much with those of the former regime in order to please Henry and take down Anne—and the suggestion that they will betray him when they no longer need him.

But the main concern of Cromwell as the book moves toward the end is to make the case against Anne, that she committed adultery with various men, and that this is treason—for which she can be executed. And so Cromwell conducts a series of interviews with her suspected lovers. One interview with an innocent musician, Mark, has a moment of drama, as Cromwell browbeats him psychologically until he breaks down. (One review says the scene recalls the McCarthy era and its red-hunting.) The other interviews are fascinating in themselves, as Cromwell tries to get each man (McCarthy-like?) to confess to adultery with Anne. But conversation is conversation; it is not action, as intellectually interesting as it may be. So while Cromwell believes he is successfully building his case, there are no substantial confrontations between equals that cause a new effect. It is more intellectual dueling.

One might note, in passing, that Mantel in this novel has recognized one criticism of her earlier novel. And so here she identifies her hero, when it is not clear that the “he” she is referring to is Cromwell. Another stylistic note is that again she writes this novel in the present tense. And, again, it does not concern me, even helping to achieve an immediacy for a content that, as I said, is often more an intellectual debate than a dramatic confrontation. Note, in fact, that the word “bodies” in the title refers to the prisoners, for, as they are about to be brought before the authorities, they are already being considered as guilty and executed.

If I am less taken by this novel than by Wolf Hall, I think it may be because that novel was about Henry separating himself from the Catholic Church, whereas this novel is about him separating himself from Anne, his wife. The former has far broader political, philosophical, and religious implications, while this separation is purely a personal one. Henry was once fascinated by, but now cannot stand, Anne. And his new emotional whim for a non-descript Jane Seymour has for me far less impact than duels with cardinals, popes, and a future saint. Whereas with Wolf Hall, I was interested in Henry, in his supposedly desperate motivation, why he was doing what he was doing, he has now turned into a typical shallow husband, claiming he wants to have a son but perhaps simply seeking a fresh woman for his bed. And the interest here moves primarily to Thomas Cromwell.

For her ending, Mantel makes the interesting decision of omitting any account of the trial of the four condemned men or of Anne herself. Perhaps because she sensed that after Cromwell’s individual confrontations with these men, nothing new remained about their situation or their denials that could be introduced at their trial. For her dramatic ending, she chose, instead, to describe in detail the execution of Anne, and it is, indeed, a powerful scene. And what she leaves us with, on the final pages, is a public suspicion of Cromwell in some quarters—that “if this is what Cromwell does to the cardinal’s lesser enemies, what will he do by and by to the king himself?” Presumably, it is a foreshadowing of the novel to come.

The major creation of this novel is, of course, Cromwell. It is Cromwell, not Henry, who drives this book, who creates guilt for men who may or may not be guilty. But who overpowers them with his wit and his intelligence. Just as he understands and anticipates Henry’s every wish, so does he the reactions of these possibly innocent men, an innocence of history’s merely rumored trysts with Anne. James Wood in the New Yorker sums up Cromwell concisely: “brutal, worldly, reticent, practical, unsentimental but not without tenderness of a kind, Biblically literate but theologically uncommitted, freakishly self-confident but perilously low on friends.”

And Mantel, who is in full command of this novel, has herself chosen to draw a remarkable portrait of a man whom historians have often presented as a cruel, heartless, and selfish villain. Whereas, she sums up one description of him almost poetically; indeed, as one would an interesting hero: “His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed.”

From now on, Henry’s story will likely become repetitive, as he seeks out new queens. Nor will his monumental ego any longer shake the world. It is Cromwell who will interest us now. We know from history that he will meet his fate in 1640, but we do not know how he will lose the power he has here. There are foreshadowings, yes; but how will it happen, since he is so intelligent, so clever, and so loyal to Henry? The third volume that Mantel has promised us reportedly will be called The Mirror and the Light. May its era be as richly presented as here, but may this new novel also probe the interior of a Cromwell now so sure of himself. May it probe his weaknesses, his second-guessing, and his doubts. And may it probe, above all, his conscience. (November, 2014)