Wednesday 8 October 2008

the secret history

The Secret Scripture
by Sebastian Barry

First of all, huge thanks to Dovegreyreader who helped me towards this copy through her post-Bookerthon competition. I had been wanting to read it for a while as it had been tipped to win the Booker as early as June this year by none other than Jonathan Coe. My only worry was that both DGR and John Self had mentioned their worries about the ending. It is a strange experience to read a book, to be enjoying it, but approaching the end with a sense of dread. But we'll get there later.

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.


Anonymous,  9 October 2008 at 10:33  

Nice review, William. That excerpt you post at the end is excellent, isn't it? (And could be a manifesto for Patrick McGrath's fiction.) It occurs to me that William Faulkner put it even more powerfully (and definitely more succinctly):

"The past is not dead. It is not even past."

William Rycroft 9 October 2008 at 11:05  

Ah yes. A line Barack Obama (mis)quoted in a speech I believe. I've only read Light In August but will no doubt find my way back to some Faulkner again. Any recommendations?

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