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The Secret Scripture

A book by Sebastian Barry

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The costs of repression

  • Dec 9, 2009
Rating:
+3
Continuing the fictional elaborations of his own family's facts, Barry tells of Irish repression movingly in this densely written but often poetic novel. Following "The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty," Roseanne Clear McNulty enters the saga around the same time, the Irish Civil War following partial independence in the early 1920s. After a tragic event in Sligo town during the internecine war brings unwarranted scorn upon her Presbyterian father, Roseanne must grow up isolated from defenders, increasingly compromised by the scrutiny of censorious Fr. Gaunt.

What transpires crosses over with the story of Eneas, and while the details will be left for you to learn, this narrative tells a rather familiar story of loss and yearning effectively, renewing by the beauty of its ruminative style a landscape harsh and barren, within the lives of men and women and especially those, like Roseanne, confined as was her mother to an asylum for her own attempts to break free of the constraints of early 20c Catholic-ruled Ireland.

Still, no story set here can be all bleak. She writes of her native city: "A hot Irish day is such a miracle we become mad foreigners in a twinkle. The rain drives everything indoors and history with it. There is a lovely lack of anything on a hot deay, and because our world in its inner truth is so wet, the surprised greens of the fields and hills seem to burn with a sort of bewilderment, a wonderment. The land looks lovely to itself, and the girls and boys along the strand are painted into the tawny yellows and the blues and the greens of the sea, also burning, burning. Or so it seemed to me. The whole town seemed to be there, everything suffering the same brushstrokes of the heat, everything joining and melding." (142)

One caveat: the depth with which Roseanne writes down her story in such rich prose does tend to blend too much with the doctor's own diary's moods, and Barry for both seems to fall into an overly rich, and rather too-studied, prose style that can slow the pace of the narrative dramatically. Some readers may like to linger in its shallows, but others may want the plot to quicken.

Later, however, the madness with which daughter as mother is diagnosed with and confined by hints at deeper suffering. Her story intersperses with Dr. Grene who researches the case of this hundred-year-old inmate at Roscommon's asylum. Roseanne tells him: "I do remember terrible dark things, and loss, and noise, but it is like one of those terrible dark pictures that hang in churches, God knows why, because you cannot see a thing in them." The doctor tells her "that is a beautiful description of traumatic memory." (101)

The doctor, "the biggest agnostic in Ireland," struggles with his own loss, and seeks in Roseanne to solve her mystery, and perhaps his. "But we are never old to ourselves. That is because at the close of day the ship we sail in is the soul, not the body." (177) He too seeks understanding of death and loss, as does Roseanne. Betrayals can be eased by desires to do right by others. "We like to characterise humanity as savage, lustful, and basic, but that is to make strangers of everyone. We are not wolves, but lambs astonished in the margins of the fields by sunlight and summer." (178)

I admit the betrayal that De. Grene confesses at this point appeared very minor and quite forgivable, but in the context of his great loss recollected, it may loom much larger in his guilty mind. Barry seeks to examine precisely this conflict between what we are accused of, by ourselves or others, and what can and should and must be forgiven and restored. In a time of cruelty for causes and utter suppression of desire, Roseanne represents a frail cry of flawed but innocent humanity.

There aren't facile solutions for men and women caught in compromise in a century of clerical domination and political oppression. The wonder of Irish scenery conflicts with its terrors, and its inhabitants are caught within both splendid days and terrible nights. After decades, how much of what transpired can only be recreated partially by Dr. Grene. "The one thing that is fatal in the reading of impromptu history is a wrongful desire for accuracy. There is no such thing." (279)

(P.S. I have also reviewed "The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty" and Barry's "A Long Long Way," a harrowing novel of WWI through an Irish soldier's eyes, on Amazon.)

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More The Secret Scripture reviews
review by . July 07, 2011
A novel set in Ireland - Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture
Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture is the story of Roseanne McNulty, who at around 100 years old has been living in a psychiatric hospital for most of her life. It may not sound like the promising start to a novel, but as Roseanne begins to write down the story of her life, we are soon drawn into the fascinating world of 20's and 30's rural Ireland, a time of civil war and the Irish Free State.   Roseanne's upbringing in the Coastal town of Sligo in Ireland's west …
review by . November 24, 2008
The Secret Scriptures
In his distinctly Irish novel, set in County Sligo and Roscommon, a mental institution, a perhaps century old woman, Roseanne Cleary McNulty, pens a diary of her long life, which she hides in her room under the floorboards. Retrieving the notebook only when it's safe, Roseanne reveals a deeply loving relationship with a father who dies far too young and a mother who withdraws over time into the solitude of a troubled mind. Presbyterians, the Cleary's are an anomaly in Catholic Sligo, Joe Cleary …
review by . July 04, 2008
In his distinctly Irish novel, set in County Sligo and Roscommon, a mental institution, a perhaps century old woman, Roseanne Cleary McNulty, pens a diary of her long life, which she hides in her room under the floorboards. Retrieving the notebook only when it's safe, Roseanne reveals a deeply loving relationship with a father who dies far too young and a mother who withdraws over time into the solitude of a troubled mind. Presbyterians, the Cleary's are an anomaly in Catholic Sligo, Joe Cleary …
About the reviewer
John L. Murphy ()
Ranked #51
Medievalist turned humanities professor; unrepentant but not unskeptical Fenian; overconfident accumulator of books & music; overcurious seeker of trivia, quadrivia, esoterica.      … more
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The latest from Barry (whoseA Long Waywas shortlisted for the 2005 Booker) pits two contradictory narratives against each other in an attempt to solve the mystery of a 100-year-old mental patient. That patient, Roseanne McNulty, decides to undertake an autobiography and writes of an ill-fated childhood spent with her father, Joe Clear. A cemetery superintendent, Joe is drawn into Ireland's 1922 civil war when a group of irregulars brings a slain comrade to the cemetery and are discovered by a division of Free-Staters. Meanwhile, Roseanne's psychiatrist, Dr. Grene, investigating Roseanne's original commitment in preparation for her transfer to a new hospital, discovers through the papers of the local parish priest, Fr. Gaunt, that Roseanne's father was actually a police sergeant in the Royal Irish Constabulary. The mysteries multiply when Roseanne reveals that Fr. Gaunt annulled her marriage after glimpsing her in the company of another man; Gaunt's official charge was nymphomania, and the cumulative fallout led to a string of tragedies. Written in captivating, lyrical prose, Barry's novel is both a sparkling literary puzzle and a stark cautionary tale of corrupted power.(June)
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Details

ISBN-10: 0670019402
ISBN-13: 978-0670019403
Author: Sebastian Barry
Genre: Literature & Fiction
Publisher: Viking Adult
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