on 31 July 2009
I have read one of Sebastian Barry's books before, Annie Dunne, but this is far better. Deceptively gentle, it reveals gradually the life of an Irishwoman, and in parallel, the thoughts of a psychiatrist charged with implementing 'care in the community' for the long-stay patients in his hospital. A damning depiction of life for poor and uneducated women in Ireland, the story connects with the history of the place and the resonance for those living through the last 100 years or so. Unputdownable!
on 8 October 2008
I am aware of Sebastian Barry more as a playwright than novelist so it comes as no surprise that the main strength of this book is in its narrative voice. This for most part is Roseanne McNulty, a patient in Roscommon Mental Hospital since 1957.
'I am completely alone, there is no one in the world that knows me now outside of this place, all my own people, the few farthings of them that once were, my little wren of a mother I suppose in chief, they are all gone now. And my persecutors are gone in the main I believe, and the reason for all this is that I am an old, old woman now, I may be as much as a hundred, though I do not know, and no one knows. I am only a thing left over, a remnant woman, and I do not even look like a human being no more, but a scraggy stretch of skin and bone in a bleak skirt and blouse, and a canvas jacket, and I sit here in my niche like a songless robin - no, like a mouse that died under the hearthstone where it was warm, and lies now like a mummy in the pyramids.'
Can't you just see her? That description comes on only the second page, in Roseanne's 'testimony' of herself, which she secretes under a loose floorboard in her room and which we will read with a growing sense of wonder. It is beautifully written, perhaps too beautifully in places -Barry's skill showing through too plainly given whose writing we are supposed to be reading- the extract above is a good example of how it can flirt with cliché before finding the right phrase. Roseanne is a character beautifully delineated, a woman who will elicit our sympathy with her tragic story (which we know from the beginning will not be easy - remember those persecutors from the passage above). But along the way we will have to question how reliable this narrative is. Not simply because she is a patient in a mental hospital but because, 'history, as far as I can see is not the arrangement of what happens, in sequence and in truth, but a fabulous arrangement of surmises and guesses held up as a banner against the assault of withering truth.'
Roseanne's story also becomes in the wider context an alternative history of Ireland itself. For those with a firm grasp on the tumultuous period before and after the Second World War it will probably be very clear. But if, like me, you aren't so clear then it is sometimes difficult to know whether the 'haze of memory' is obscuring the facts. What is certain is that with power shifting between groups and factions at the drop of the hat, there are many who will be caught in the crossfire and it is easy to see how, not only lives, but histories could be vanished.
We also have the thoughts of her psychiatrist, Dr Grene, contained within his commonplace book. Charged with preparing his patients for relocation or release as the hospital closes he is keen to know more of Roseanne, a patient who has been in the hospital so long that no one is clear as to the reason for her admission.
'I am afraid she is rather a touchstone for me. She has been a fixture, and not only represents the institution, but also, in a curious way, my own history, my own life. 'The star to every wandering bark,' as Shakespeare has it. '
As he follows a bureaucratic trail we continue with the increasingly tragic testimony of his patient and each will find themselves needing the other, the doctor as reliant upon the patient for support as he confronts his own past, present and future. Dr Grene is a less convincing character somehow, his story taking up less of the book proportionally and in our imaginations too, I think. The reasons for the breakdown of his mariage never really touched on beyond what we might infer from a doctor so caught up in his patients lives.
And then there's the ending. Knowing that it was an issue for some I had a guess about halfway through, imagining the most sensational, melodramatic and yet trite way of finishing the story and it turned out to be just that. I groaned audibly when it happened. It's all the more baffling for being the way Barry chooses to finish a novel all about the unreliability of memory. I would have been quite happy to have the details left unanswered, especially after having so enjoyed his depiction of remembrance, his questioning even of our experience of life.
'I am old enough to know now that time passing is just a trick, a convenience. Everything is always there, still unfolding, still happening. The past, the present, and the future, in the noggin eternally, like brushes, combs and ribbons in a handbag.'
The writing is consistently strong, it's a wonderful book, but I wish I could just forget the last 20 pages or so. I guess I will, in time.
I read this more as book about the power of fate than a reworking of a theme of anti-Catholicism. In fact, it put me more in mind of Thomas Hardy than anything else. We maybe know where it's all heading but we follow the journey.
It's possible to characterise `The Secret Scripture' - like `The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty' or `A Long Long Way' - as "revisionist", and the book may please or displease some readers according to their political proclivities.
But for me this misses the value of Barry's work. As well as an ear for the beauty of language, he has an outstanding gift for characterisation and a deep if understated compassion. While well-rooted in an Ireland of a certain period, his novels touch far deeper, universal matters.
Since I read the novel (twice), I drove out from Glenfarne in north Leitrim to Rosses point and looked across to the tin man and Coney island. It was a windy, slightly wet day and you could somehow imagine Roseanne McNulty struggling along. When I got back in the car it wouldn't start and I had to call the breakdown.
on 28 August 2008
To assuage his curiosity about one of his patients, psychiatrist Dr William Grene tries to research her life, unaware that at the same time she is writing her own account of her youth. Her journal sheds light on her past; she grew up during the period of civil war and conflict as the young Irish state struggled to find its feet. Roseanne Clear was a victim of persecution and prejudice, locked up in an asylum because no-one was willing to look after her. Grene becomes anxious to discover the truth as he himself tries to cope with his guilt following the death of his wife.
Barry inhabits his two main characters, bringing their worlds to life. Roseanne describes her youth, her family home and her troubled parents with heartbreaking clarity. We are drawn in by her narrative and want to believe every word she writes. She fails to understand why the ambitious local priest is so harsh towards her- Barry writes about the excitement and dreadful naivete of youth with such energy and vigour that her story is unforgettable. Grene's sections are shorter, calmer ,more composed, more analytical, discussing passion and his emotions about the death of his wife with the detachment of the psychiatrist.
The remarkable elegance and simplicity of the novel is developed through Barry's evocative handling of locations, his ability to depict the bleak and inhumane treatment of Roseanne without ever sacrificing the warmth of her character; his use of that most enigmatic and tender symbol, the rose, to reflect her nature is an element of the poetic intensity which the novel generates.
I am still uncertain about the ending, I'm not sure if it is really credible or if it really works but other sections of the novel are so powerful and so moving, the characterisation is so compelling, I feel this novel merits five stars.
on 25 July 2012
`I did not know that a person could hold up a wall made of imaginary bricks and mortar against the horrors and cruel, dark tricks of time that assail us, and be the author therefore of themselves.'
So writes Roseanne McNulty, a centenarian patient in Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital, as she secretly puts pen to paper and sets down her life story.
The Secret Scripture was Costa Book of the Year in 2008. The old-lady-in-an-asylum subject didn't much grab me, I'll admit (to be honest, it struck me as worthy but dull) but thank goodness I read it all the same because I was hooked from the first page. In fact chapter one is so good it could serve as a model for would-be writers. Find a distinctive voice - tick; establish a sense of place - tick; build suspense - tick; locate the character - tick; and set up the theme - tick. Barry manages to do it all, and more, within the first couple of pages.
Rosanne's life is shaped by political and religious forces she barely registers, much less understands. She is the only child of a Presbyterian father and a Plymouth Brethren mother, growing up in predominantly Catholic Sligo in the early twentieth century, and the violence of the period breaks into her account like the tips of so many icebergs - the Easter Rising, the First World War, the Irish War of Independence, the special position of the Catholic Church in the Free State's Constitution, the rise of Fascism in Europe, the Second World War. It is against this backdrop that Rosanne's own turbulent history unfolds.
The counterpoise to Rosanne's `brittle and honest-minded' account is the narrative of Dr Grene, the hospital's senior psychiatrist. Dr Grene, investigating the reason for Rosanne's committal to assess her suitability for being put back into the community preparatory to the hospital closing, unearths the deposition of the `all knowing, stern minded, and entirely unforgiving priest' Father Gaunt. As Rosanne's `Testimony of Herself' interweaves with Dr Grene's `Commonplace Book' alternative, equally compelling, versions of her story emerge. With Doctor Greene, we are prompted to question the nature of truth and whether truth is something `above and beyond the actual verity of the `facts'.'
I can't recall many books I'd have gladly begun reading all over again the instant I'd finished, but this is definitely one of them. The narrative is gripping, the prose is beautiful, and the scope is deftly handled. If I have one negative comment it is that the plot comes together a little too neatly for my taste - I prefer `messier' endings - but it isn't mawkish or manipulative so this is really a minor quibble.
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on 13 December 2012
Sebastian Barry's `The Secret Scripture' is a masterpiece and winning the 2008 Costa book awards is testament to this. The novel, described by The Times as `'An astonishing story'', is based around the life and mysterious circumstances surrounding Roscommon regional mental hospital patient Roseanne McNulty. The book is written from a first person narrative from within Roseanne's autobiography self-titled `Roseanne's testimony of herself'. Barry's novel also comprises of anecdotes in the style of a second narrative from the chief psychiatrist Dr. Greene.
The novel is set in Ireland and makes continual references to the sufferings inflicted upon Roseanne due to the political and religious troubles in Ireland during the 1920's and 1930's. Barry explained how he gained inspiration for his top ten bestseller through a story told to him by his mother depicting the unfortunate life of his `'great uncle's first wife'' whom was placed into a `'lunatic asylum by the family''. Arguably the personal influence has helped Barry to create a book so emotionally powerful it has scooped numerous awards such as the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and has led to personal acclaim with the Irish Times arguing Barry could be considered `'our greatest living novelist''.
The novel depicts not only Roseanne's unfortunate life but also the uncertainty surrounding the one hundred year old women, as the Roscommon mental hospital, her home for the last 50 or so years, faces imminent closure. As the story delves deeper into her dark past through readings from her autobiography, hidden under the floor boards in her room, the reader also follows Dr. Greene's tentative effort to uncover her past and discover her reason for incarceration, a reason not necessarily shared between the two.
Roseanne's secret journal takes the reader through her turbulent childhood in Sligo, rural Ireland in the 1930's and also the `'tragedies and passions'' she experienced prior to being submitted to the mental institution. The reader also gains an insight into the other protagonist Dr. Greene as he try's to deal with the death of his wife while also searching for seemingly scarce information on the ghost-like Roseanne McNulty.
The novel could cite its idiosyncrasies as circumstance and time as both are integral to Roseanne's life and her current position. The novel explains Roseanne to be the offspring of a mentally unstable mother and a protestant father, both integral and ultimately detrimental to Roseanne's life as she was living in West Ireland during the Irish civil war.
The book is a must as the reader will inevitably be captivated by Roseanne's heart breaking story as she devotes the remainder of her life to building a picture of her history. This answers the many ambiguous questions posed throughout the novel which the reader will undoubtedly raise as they journey through Sebastian Barry's astonishing story which more than merits the overwhelmingly positives responses and reviews it has received.
on 18 December 2009
In The Secret Scripture, Sebastian Barry tells a story set in Ireland. As is often the case, this story set in Ireland is very much a story of Ireland, as much describing a nation and a setting as a personal history. But it seems that at least one aspect of the country's painful relationship with its competing churches has changed in Sacred Scriptures. Gone is the assumption of grace applied unthinkingly by Catholics to their side of the divide. And reason for its removal is the church's attitude towards women, marriage and motherhood. In Secret Scriptures these axes of divide intersect to create a story that is effectively a modern virgin birth. It thus creates and presents a Madonna who, in her own way, must be kept above and apart from other women, other people.
Late in the book Dr Grene, whose journal forms a large part of the narrative, asks this question: "Is not most history written in a sort of wayward sincerity?" Recollection thus remains sincere, but its waywardness perhaps lies in its selectivity, its particularity. History, after all, is an interpretation of events, not merely a listing, and interpretation always has a point of view. When, however, one's knowledge of the past is at best patchy and at worst inaccurate, it becomes a new world to be discovered, revealed perhaps by chance, perhaps by design. Dr Grene also writes, "The one thing that is fatal in the reading of an impromptu history is wrongful desire for accuracy." In the end, it is Dr Grene's pursuit of such an impromptu history that reveals a stunning truth, a truth that can only be uncovered precisely because of the accuracy, the diligence that others invested in one person's history.
The impromptu history that Dr Grene reads is that of Secret Scripture's central character, Roseanne McNulty, née Clear. She is a hundred years old and has, for most of her adult life, been confined within the walls of a mental hospital. Her place of repose is to close and be demolished. Dr Grene is to oversee its demise. Roseanne has decided to write her life story.
If Te Secret Scripture has a weakness, then it has a double weakness. Overall, the plot might come too close to the sentimental for some readers. For others, it will be the book's saving grace. Secondly, Roseanne Clear, frail at a hundred years of age, might be an unlikely figure to write such a succinct, coherent and vivid account of events that happened almost eighty years before. Again we must suspend some belief here, but that is easily done because her recollections are both engaging and credible. They would have been more so if, as impromptu history, they were less concerned with improbable detail. It's not the events that might be questionable, merely the accuracy of their recollection. But after all, that detail might just be illusory.
There was a history in the family, we are told, a history of illness and instability and, perhaps, a history of another, less mentionable, affliction of women. But in the end none of these are rare. It's their public acknowledgement or admission that's unusual.
Life and its institutions treat Roseanne Clear badly, but no differently from others identified as afflicted with her condition. She is effectively branded insane by a socially-constructed righteousness that now seems to have lost all of its previously unquestioned authority. She seems to have few regrets, however, except, of course, for a life that may not have been lived. The life in question did, in fact, live, and it became something that reinterpreted Roseanne's entire existence.
Sacred Scripture is a beautiful book. It has its flaws, but the immediacy of its subject and the poignancy of its dénouement make it both enthralling and surprising.
This is a wonderful book that in lyrical prose unfolds the story of Roseanne who has been incarcerated in a mental hospital for most of her life. When the book begins she is an old lady of nearly a hundred looking back on her past in a quizzical way as she secretly writes down her memories. At the same time her psychiatrist Dr Grene is making notes of his assessment of her as he tries to decide where she should go when the institution closes.
He is intrigued by her calm demeanour and by her apparent lack of interest in communicating with him. Many of her records have disappeared and he is increasingly drawn into trying to find out who she really is and how she came to be in the hospital.
Through Rose's testimony we learn how her own mother was insane, that she adored her father and was later rejected by the family she married into. Her family's Presbyterianism in a Catholic society is a constant source of trouble. But Rose is never strident outraged by what has happened to her - all her troubles are seen with a half sad, half amused view. (Her way of speaking reminded me very much of the unfortunate Grace in Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace) Rose is very much a commentator and spectator of the world around her. When Dr Grene confronts her with some recorded facts about her past she rejects them - Rose's writings have become her own truth.
Dr Grene is a kindly though far from being faultless. He is slow to respond to obvious abuses and problems within the hospital and is also infuriatingly slow in getting to grips with Rose's history. But he has no illusions about his own capabilities: "It would be a very good thing if occasionally I thought I knew what I was doing."
A lovely book, well deserving all the critical acclaim. Barry writes of bitterness, memory and loss in an Ireland of sectarianism, hatred and betrayal. But in spite of everything the spirit of Rose survives. My only real problem with The Secret Scripture was the rather clumsy and coincidental plot device at the end - this was a pity and spoiled the end for me.
The Secret Scripture is a book that draws you in and you want to race through it to find out what happens. But now I feel I need to go back and read it again in order to savour the wonderful language.
PS - I don't usually comment on book covers but the photograph on the front of my copy is just lovely and absolutely the right choice!
on 23 July 2009
This novel was one of a stash of books I took on holiday with me recently. I have to confess that at first my heart fell down into my flip-flops as as dark upon darker elements of Ireland's history and culture paraded out across the pages. The religious and post-civil war divide hangs a pall over events from the outset, accompanied by the degradations of poverty, cruelty to children, fear of sexuality (women's especially), institutional abuse and so on. Barry stirs them all unsparingly into a strong brew. However the style is mesmeric and the story gradually drew me in.
I had some difficulty with Roseanne, the main character's voice.She tells her story in strange, stilted language. Nobody I know speaks like this, neither older people, nor Sligo people. Maybe Barry intended to give her heightened rather than realistic speech, or maybe he meant to underline that she was writing rather than speaking much of the time. It grated on me for a while but again this evaporated into absorption into the story.
Roseanne's story is told in alternating sections: extracts from her own memoir-in-progress, tucked under floorboards away from prying eyes, and from an assessment of her state of mind by the doctor attending her in the institution where she has lived for many years. By her own admission, Roseanne's account is a struggle to remember and to understand. The doctor's assessment morphs into a kind of inquiring biography, as he becomes more and more fascinated by her story. The theme of the novel seems to be the difficulty of giving a true account of events, and how a person's life, or even a country's history, remains a mystery which can never be fully explicated.
There are some plot weaknesses, including a final, coincidential twist that I found both predictable and implausible. I think it's a pity the author didn't resist tying things up in this particular way. However, the book has many memorable scenes and gives much food for thought. It's sad, dramatic, intense, and well worth reading.
on 29 April 2009
First off this is one of the `meatiest' modern books I have read in a while. Barry's writing is really lovely and manages to create the location and situation beautifully well so that both feel very `real' most of the time.
The main plot idea was something that intrigued me when I read the back, and it works well throughout the novel. Essentially Roseanne McNulty is spending her older years (she is possibly nearly 100 by this point but no one really knows for sure) reflecting on her life and how she ended up spending most of her life incarcerated in a mental asylum in Ireland. She keeps this reflection hidden from everyone else, hence the title `The Secret Scripture.' Her narrative is interspersed with the reflections of her psychologist, Dr Grene, who reflects both upon Roseanne's situation and that of his own. Unlike other reviewers I did find both these voices `distinct' from each other and thought that the structure worked well. The plot line itself was also enjoyable, with the story being built up slowly and effectively throughout right through until the conclusion of the novel. I really liked the ending, I thought it was both appropriate and a surprise-although judging by the other reviews on here I must have been the only person in the world who didn't see the final `twist' coming from a mile off!
However, despite all the above I still haven't felt able to give this book five stars and this is solely because Barry's representation of women I found to be two dimensional and patronising at times. First off, there are hardly any women in this book and those that are in it are either dead, marginalised or so lacking in backbone it makes their character essentially unbelievable. I am thinking mainly of Roseanne here, but all other women (her mother, mother in law, sister in law, Dr Grene's wife) fall into the same void of obscureness. This is a real shame when the novel is primarily concerned with women! This point hit me at full force when I was reading and wished for Roseanne to do some disturbing things, if only to make her more interesting!
So all in all a good read, and definitely one of the stronger books out there at the moment-but if you like your women `rounded' and strong then this book is going to probably infuriate you beyond belief!