I really don’t like my chances of reading the Booker Prize shortlist before it is announced on 14 October, especially as this is the only one I have read! I always try to read the Miles Franklin shortlist of Australian literature, and usually finish the night before it is announced! But the Booker is usually beyond me.
But I was excited about reading The Secret Scripture when I realised that it was written by Sebastian Barry. I read A Long, Long Way last year, and along with The Book Thief, these are the two books that have had me audibly sobbing whilst reading.
As with A Long, Long Way, this book is set in Ireland and takes for its main characters people, events and perspectives that are often overlooked. Indeed, the main character of The Secret Scripture, Roseanne McNulty- or is it Roseanne Clear?- has certainly been overlooked. She has been incarcerated in an asylum for about sixty years, and it is only at the age of 100, as the asylum is being deinstitutionalized, that questions are again raised about why exactly she came to be placed there, and by whom. The story is told in alternating voices- Roseanne’s own testimony surreptitiously written on scrap paper and hidden under a floorboard, and that of Dr Grene, her recently-bereaved psychiatrist who has to decide on the appropriate placement for her when the asylum is closed.
Roseanne has truly been a victim of Ireland’s ‘big’ history in her own little life: all the distrust and hatred of religion and politics comes right into her most intimate and precious relationships. She is a passive victim- perhaps to stop resisting is the ultimate defeat. Tragic things have happened to her, often not of her own making, and yet there is a simplicity that shines through her. Or is there? The major theme of this book is history- its evasions, its slipperiness and its unreliability. And Dr Grene himself, who at first seems to be the anchoring ‘truth’ in the narrative becomes increasingly suspect as a narrator. You find yourself wondering if either of these narratives- Roseanne’s and Dr Grene’s – can be trusted.
Barry has written about these characters, and their situations before. Eneas McNulty had already appeared in his The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty and was an officer in Thomas Dunne’s policeforce. Dunne was a main character in Barry’s play The Steward of Christendom, and his son Willie appeared in A Long Long Way, and Willie’s sister appears in Annie Dunne. So while each book is self contained as a narrative, there are allusions and resonances in Barry’s other work as well. Of course, Barry is not the only author to construct an interconnected web of characters like this- Tim Winton does it too- and there’s a frisson of recognition when you make the connection.
In this case, Barry takes his characters from his own family tree. He’s not the only writer to do that either- Kate Grenville seems to be devoting herself to it (her new book The Lieutenant pairs up with her earlier The Secret River) , and Peter Behrens (whose Law of Dreams I reviewed earlier) also based his story on an ancestor. On one level I can understand the attraction of recovering and making your own family members come alive again through your writing. I guess that it’s a form of self-reflection, wondering whether certain characteristics have come through to you. And there’s also the element of identification and indebtedness: that I am who I am because of them. But all this seems very “me” oriented. I think about the ‘celebrities’ on the increasing formulaic Who Do You Think You Are? wide-eyed with wonder at their forebears’ lot and determined to squeeze every possible supposition out of the flimsiest of evidence- and culminating, always always always with trembling chins and tears at the injustice and hardness of other people’s lives. Ah, but they are OUR other people’s lives- hence our empathy and imagination wells up for them, when it has laid dormant for any other of the millions of other people who trod the same paths.
Not just characters- Barry also revisits his earlier work in his narrative voice too. The scene that affected me so much in A Long, Long Way was where the young boy stood up and sang Ave Maria- I don’t have the book here, but it was beautifully written with a sob of pain in each sentence. Beautiful, beautiful writing. And then, in The Secret Scripture, I found another lamentation which evoked the keening of his earlier work as well:
…that he hanged himself. Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh oh, oh, oh, oh. Do you know the grief of it? I hope not. The grief that does not age, that does not go away with time, like most griefs and human matters. That is the grief that is always there, swinging a little in a derelict house…..
But I have a little lamentation of my own- the ending. Barry has unsettled us throughout the book over issues of truth and secrecy, and yet has tied up all the ends neatly and plonked it on our laps as a finished product.
So I have mixed feelings about the book. The writing was beautiful; Roseanne was a haunting, tragic character; it is a very sad, sad book. The ambiguity of truth, invention and forgetting keeps you wary and watchful as a reader. But oh- the ending- (oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh….).