Monday, March 30, 2009

The Secret Scripture
Sebastian Barry
' I did not know that a person could hold up a wall made of imaginary bricks and mortar...and be made the author therefore of themselves'
Roseanne McNulty is living in Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital, an asylum for the insane. She is believed to be 100 years old and has decided to write the story of her life which she keeps under a loose floorboard in her room. She regards herself as 'only a thing left over,a remnant woman' but through her narrative we are asked to consider the nature of history and Barry's central premise that
'History,as far as I can see, is not the arrangement of what happens but a fabulous arrangement of surmises and guesses held up as a banner against the assault of withering truth'
The history of Roseanne is told in the first person - with all that implies about the reliability of the narrator. Indeed, we are given our own detective in the form of Dr Grene, Senior Psychiatrist at the hospital which is due to be closed. He has been charged with the task of assessing the patients to see who should be moved to the new facility and who can be moved out into the community. Thus begins the dance between Dr Grene and Roseanne with the Dr wanting to establish the circumstances under which Roseanne was admitted and Roseanne herself keeping back information.
We are also given the history of Ireland, the competing versions of freedom and truth during it's wars and the enormous and insidious power of the Catholic Church through the priest Fr Gaunt, who Dr Grene describes as 'obviously sane to such a degree it makes sanity almost undesirable'.
Roseanne's history is intimately affected by Ireland's past, her father is caught up in an attempt to bury a dead Irregular fighter and involves Fr Gaunt which results in her father loosing his job as grave digger to become rat catcher to the town of Sligo. Roseanne herself is accused of telling the Free State Soldiers about the Irregular fighters, which results in their deaths. Her mother sinks into madness and her father dies - by his own hand or murdered? Just one of the competing versions of truth Dr Grene has to untangle.
Happiness and marriage to Tom McNulty are again interrupted by the power of Fr Gaunt who has his own views on Roseanne and her proper place and who has previously tried to take Roseanne under his wing - despite her being a Presbyterian. It is Fr Gaunt's view of Roseanne and her actions that result in Roseanne being committed to the asylum where she spends the rest of her long life, consigned to the margins of society and the footnotes of history - as many women were.
Sebastian Barry has created a novel full of repeating images: cliffs, feathers, music, temples and murder, the repetition of which act as a beat within the novel over which is laid the melody of Roseanne's life and, as counterpoint, the life of Dr Grene who is supposed to be assessing his patient but who instead is consumed by his own life and mistakes. Each character's life has an echo in the other which finally intertwine at the end of the novel.
And a note about the end of the novel, which has been much talked about. I do not believe that the author who created such memorable prose and characters would be so careless as to sink to soap opera plotting for his finale. I prefer to believe that Roseanne's life is once again affected by outside forces and that our view of her once again shifts depending on the knowledge we have of her - and that maybe Barry was so involved with his character that he wanted a little spark of happiness at the end.
A book to savour and read slowly - again and again - and attempt to come to grips with the untidiness and unresolved nature of history and memory.

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