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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