I never would have heard about Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture, had it not been for the Booker Prize. Being shortlisted for the Booker Prize is by no means Barry’s first time under the limelight. He received much critical praise for his earlier novels The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty as well as A Long Long Way. In fact, the Eneas McNulty in his earlier book plays a small but pivotal role in Secret Scripture.
The story is told in alternating chapters between Roseanne McNulty, née Clear and Dr. Grene. When the book opens, we learn that Roseanne has been confined for the past 60 or so years in the Roscommon Regional Mental hospital. Due to the building’s age, it has been slated for demolition and it falls upon Dr. Grene to determine who among the old patients can be transferred to the new hospital. He tries to elicit from Roseanne the story of how she came to be confined, all the while suffering from his own personal crisis. Unbeknownst to him, she has started to write down her story, secreting the pages of her life under a loose board in her room.
It is a bit slow going in the beginning and you need to be patient in order to reap the fruits of Barry’s writing. But, as the story progresses, the reader is rewarded by the mastery he has over language. Barry is able to turn in the most fetching of phrases even for the most mundane details. To wit, the town of Sligo is described as “a cold dark town, assaulted by rain so brutal, it makes the houses shiver and huddle like people at a football match.” What finally engages the reader however is the character of Roseanne who is very much a modern heroine but has the misfortune of being born during the wrong era. It’s a tale of woe as she suffers deprivation and marginalization at the hands of the cruel and the prejudiced. At this point you might be wondering why bother with such a story, and the answer is that we come to care for this character whose will to survive and to believe in inherent goodness remains intact.
What is interesting as well in this novel is the way Barry captures the vagaries and shifting nature of truth. There is no one objective truth in this novel (as in life), just the different facets of it, as viewed from different points of view and by different individuals. And if truth is a slippery ever shifting thing, memory and history which is supposed to rely on it, can never be fully reconciled. As Roseanne points out, “No one has the monopoly on the truth, and that is vexing and worrying thought.”
So much of the characters personal history must as well be evaluated against the canvass of history. In this novel, this is an Ireland ravaged by war with deep and lasting enmities. Against such a backdrop, the characters can never escape and are condemned to struggle perpetually against the weight of their own history. It makes it all the more remarkable that Roseanne is able to reach for her own happiness, fleeting though it may be.