Saturday, 9 May 2009

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

Barry's story of the life of a beautiful woman in Sligo makes use of two narrative voices. We have Roseanne Clear (or McNulty, her surname is elusive and problematic), now very old, a longstanding inmate of the local asylum, who is writing the secret scripture of the title, her memories captured on hoarded scraps of paper and hidden beneath the floorboards of her room. Roseanne's narrative is episodic and impressionistic, punctuated with her descriptions of incredible, often very visual, happenings; the flight of the German bombers across the coast being the obvious example. Roseanne is aware of her frailty as a narrator, the fallibility of her memories, and reminds us of this. Dr Grene, Roseanne's psychiatrist, has a more scientific and objective approach in his narrative of Roseanne, which weighs the evidence and tries to achieve some form of truth. There is a third narrative of Roseanne's life which we cannot read in its entirety: Father Gaunt's testimony, found by Dr Grene in ancient medical records, which has shaped the course of Roseanne's life and led directly to her long incarceration. This narrative contradicts Roseanne's own words, and provides alternative readings for some of the more inexplicable events of her childhood, but serves eventually to reinforce the view of Roseanne as a victim of a deeply conservative society and the pervasive power of the clergy.

The book is beautifully written, the two narrative voices distinctive and fully realised, and the two main characters charming. Roseanne's reminiscences of her girlhood, the pleasures of being a young attractive woman with friends to laugh with, of being part of a social group, are particularly poignant given her later life. The way in which the discrepancies in Roseanne's story inform Dr Grene's understanding of his own life, especially his marriage, is touching. However, as Barry remarks in a discussion of this book in the Guardian, you may have to forgive the ending its huge coincidence and deus ex machina in order to love the book. No doubt many other readers got two-thirds of the way through, saw how the land might lie, and thought that the author surely wouldn't do that, only to have their worst fears realised. A month or so after finishing the book, I can now almost forgive it; at the time I was so cross with it that I lent it out immediately.

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