Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Sebastian Barry, The Secret Scripture (Faber, 2008)

Sebastian Barry's new novel reinforces his position of one of the most beautiful, lyrical writers in Ireland. This needed little reinforcing. His previous novel, A Long Long Way (Faber, 2005) was an incredible delving into an Irish problem never openly described as such. It tells the story of Willie Dunne in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, his entry into the First World War, and the terrible beauty of 1916 in which he effectively becomes an enemy. This novel deeply affected me, and I shall say only this about it. There is a scene in which Willie thanks his father for writing to him while he was in the trenches. The father is flustered for a moment, with embarrassment almost, and says it was an honour to write to him. An honour. Imagine a father saying that to his son. Well, that is how I felt about reading this book. It was an honour for me.

The Secret Scripture is an impossibly delicate account of Rosemary Clear, Mrs McNulty, during the last days of the Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital. The prose is so delicate that I had to read it slowly in case I damaged it. She is over one hundred years old, though no-one knows exactly. Her psychiatrist, Dr Grene, has been given the task of assessing all the patients and deciding who is fit for release before the remaining patients are transferred to a new facility. The story is told in two interrelated narratives. One is by Rosemary herself, written in her private hours and hidden beneath the floorboards of her room. The other is from Dr Grene's 'Commonplace Book'. So both accounts are personal, biased, based on memory, on that most faulty and tricky faculty we depend on so much for what and who we are. What results is a miracle of past and present and future, private anecdotes and secret memoirs (from Maria Edgeworth's preface to Castle Rackrent). There is so much deep water in this book that it is hard to know where to begin and hard to know if I have even surfaced yet. Barry is interested in the birth pains of the new Ireland, how it incorporates its citizens and who it decides to exclude, to excommunicate [there is, by the way, an extraordinary description of childbirth in the book that will leave you stunned]. The Ireland of The Secret Scripture is struggling to establish itself, where power is concentrated in a few figures, a power that becomes abused and corrupted. Fr Gaunt is such a figure, perhaps one of the key movers of the narrative. It is he who decides to interpret Roseanne's actions in a certain way, an interpretation that leads to her extraordinary purgatorial existence before she is sent to the asylum, and indeed his interpretation of subsequent events is what leads to her incarceration in the asylum. There are many who are implicated and all, in the great struggle for respectibility, are only too happy to invest such power in the priest. The 'facts' of the story are presented from several perspectives, so that it is not possible to settle on what happened, only on what is remembered, on what is important to the individuals involved. Dr Grene has his own story to unravel and to follow, and it leads him to the most unexpected places. The surprise is that it was a journey he never thought he was actually undertaking, getting answers to questions he thought had nothing to do with him. There is great mystery in life, and great truth in mystery.

This is an important book. A very important book. And again, it was an honour to read it.

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