"The Secret Scripture": A world of woe in one long life
An old Irish woman, her sympathetic psychiatrist and a vengeful priest are the main ingredients in "The Secret Scripture," a novel addressing the tricks of memory over time, by Man Booker Prize finalist Sebastian Barry ("A Long Long Way").
The Hartford Courant
"The Secret Scripture"
by Sebastian Barry
Viking, 330 pp., $24.95
Like an ancient Rapunzel sequestered in a tower, Roseanne Clear McNulty is slowly measuring out her remaining days. At 100 years old, maybe more, she is a ruined beauty locked away in a moldering mental hospital in Northern Ireland, her only visitors a kindly psychiatrist 35 years her junior, a gruff orderly and the occasional mouse.
And her memories.
In "The Secret Scripture," Irish novelist and playwright Sebastian Barry has created a wondrous character in Roseanne, who is secretly writing (and burying under the floorboards) not so much a memoir but an accounting of her life and the events — a few joyful, but far too many others devastating — that brought her to this place.
Roseanne, the beautiful daughter of an even more striking mother and a father entangled in the swirling passions of the Irish troubles of the early 20th century, has reaped little but tragedy from her beauty.
Now, with nothing to do but look back and nothing to fear — or welcome — but death, she feels compelled to recount the days of her life for readers unknown. Her voice, at once elegiac, sardonic, enraged and deeply wounded, is a marvel. Memories spill from her like lilting Irish music, thought following thought like the tumble of a stream.
She recalls her parents: "And he married her and brought her back to Sligo and there she lived her life henceforth, not bred in that darkness, but like a lost shilling on a floor of mud, glistening in some despair."
When adversity strikes the family, Protestants in a primarily Catholic world, her mother retreats into madness and is institutionalized. Roseanne does not foresee that she, too, will find refuge eventually in a hospital that becomes her decades-long home, after a marriage destroyed by small-town mores and the machinations of an unforgiving priest and an untended birth described in searing, horrifying detail.
Her main visitor, psychiatrist William Grene, enjoys visiting her for reasons he does not quite understand, but the astute reader will guess. There is a secret to be uncovered here, and part of Barry's control is the delicate way he reveals this aspect of the story, making the whys of the tale far more important than the whats.
Grene is also keeping a diary, and once the reader gets past the somewhat contrived coincidence and simply listens to his tale and Roseanne's, the story blends and flows beautifully. He also has an official purpose in visiting the old woman: The hospital is due to be closed, and he must determine which patients can safely live in the wider world. To reach a decision about Roseanne, he must delve far back into her life, and documents are then unearthed that broaden and enrich the story.
The doctor and his patient occupy center stage, and several other characters — an IRA soldier; the mysterious orderly; Roseanne's husband, Tom, and his two difficult brothers; Tom's cold and hostile mother — play important roles. But none is so central, or evil, as Gaunt, a domineering priest as sleek as a seal and deadly as a serpent, who, befuddled by Roseanne's beauty and strong will, focuses his innate disgust and hatred of women and corrupt misuse of the Church's power on her.
This is a powerful story, and Man Booker Prize finalist Barry ("A Long Long Way") tells it compellingly. But he is after bigger game: capturing the mutability and unreliability of memory and how its imperfections alter what we believe is true. Many versions of Roseanne's life are presented in "The Secret Scripture," and the reader is given the pleasure and the challenge of unwinding this complex and beautiful skein.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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