Saturday, April 11, 2009

Reading group: The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

Jenny suggested this novel about Roseanne McNulty who is nearing her hundredth birthday in the Roscommon mental hospital to which she was committed as a young woman, and her psychiatrist Dr Grene who becomes intrigued by her as the hospital is made ready for closure and his own retirement approaches. Jenny had been interested in the book because her own aunt had been similarly committed for purely moral reasons and in the same way had become so institutionalized that she never left.

The story is told in two alternating first-person narrations: the secret memoir that Roseanne begins writing, in which she looks back over her life and the tragic circumstances, rooted in political and religious conflict, which led her to the asylum, and the journal which Dr Grene begins at the same time to record his professional progress - in particular his unsuccessful attempts to draw Roseanne out - but which also lapses into a private memoir.

I think Jenny wasn't disappointed, and on the whole the group was enthusiastic about this book. People found it a moving, indeed heart-wrenching story, and most especially people loved the writing: Hans arrived with his copy bristling with post-it notes marking sentences and passages he especially liked. It's 'poetic' in that there is a lyrical rhythm and it is profound and startling in its observations. Here's Roseanne summing up a truth behind her own tragedy: '...history as far as I can see it 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.' Yet the prose is marked by the tics of the characters' psychology as each tries to recall and make sense of their experience, stopping and starting and questioning both their memories and expression. Writing that Roseanne has clearly suffered great pain, and that this 'actually gives her her strange grace', Grene then comments: 'Now, that is not a thought I had before I wrote it down.' In this way the memoir form of the book is unusually dynamic: the journals are not merely vehicles for a story; the actual writing of them moves the characters' development forward. And in this way the book is about not simply Roseanne's particular story - shocking and moving and tied up with the political history of Ireland as it is - but the ways in which we process our own stories and negotiate the aspects of them that are unknown to us.

I said that one thing I loved most about this book was its humanity - the fact that Roseanne never shows bitterness towards those who have wronged her, looking for humanity in even the near-inhuman Father Gaunt, main perpetrator of her wrongs, and the way that both she and Grene constantly reach for understanding. Everyone agreed. Then I said that I did have one caveat about the book, which in fact I was reluctant to mention because I loved the book so much, and it was the same one that the judges had (unusually) admitted to when awarding the book the Costa Prize: I didn't like the way the revelation at the end (which I won't give away here) was achieved. It wasn't convincing, I said, and Ann, Doug and John strongly agreed.

Jenny and Clare didn't quite agree, though, I think: they pointed out all the aspects of the plot which explained the ending and meant that it did all fit together. I said yes, it did all fit together on the level of plot, but I didn't think it worked on the psychological level: there were not enough pointers on that level to make me feel 'Ah yes, of course!' when the truth was revealed. Hans and Doug strongly said that they felt that I'd got to the nub of it. In fact, some people in the group hadn't actually grasped the plot connections, and I think that this was why, because it wasn't backed up by a psychological resolution.

Then Doug revealed that he hadn't liked the book nearly as much as the rest of us, and this seemed to be because he found other aspects of it unbelievable: the fact that Roseanne could have been incarcerated merely on moral grounds and for the rest of her life, and the appalling coldness and cruelty of the priest and her mother-in-law who had put her there. There was now a chorus of objection: Jenny referred back to her aunt, and Clare, who is a psychotherapist, said that she had worked with women in such circumstances as late as the seventies and eighties, and not even in rural Ireland as in the book, but in England. I said that there were exactly parallel stories in the Irish side of my own family, in which people were excommunicated by priests and shunned by the family for similar moral, political and religious reasons. In fact, I said, when I had previously read Barry's earlier novel, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, in which a minor (though not insignificant) character in The Secret Scripture takes centre stage, I felt as though Barry had somehow heard about a particular member of my own family. Thus I found myself in a very weird situation, for me: it's usually Trevor in the group who appeals to life to justify novels, and I who wag my literary finger and insist that appeals to life are irrelevant because a book has to convince on its own.

Indeed, I said, one of the things which moved me tremendously about The Secret Scripture is that it picks up and makes central an encounter in The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty which there seemed strangely incidental yet remained one of my strongest and most resonant memories of that book. Perhaps what is so moving about the cross-novel connections which Barry creates is the way that they formally demonstrate the marginalization of people and their searing experience in a situation of political and religious prejudice. And I must say that everyone in the group, none of whom knew of the other book, was very intrigued by this connection.

And then, for the rest of the evening, we discussed the real-life issues which the book and Doug's objection had raised.

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.


Izzy said...

I like your review a lot and you have reminded me that I have the Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty on my bookshelf and that I should take it down and read it soon. I enjoyed the Secret Scripture and think it is the best book about memory that I have ever read. I am a fan of Sebastian Barry's so I am happy to read any of his work. So far, I prefer A Long, Long Way though.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Ah, Izzy, that's one I haven't read - I must get to it!