Saturday, 20 June 2009
The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry
The Secret Scripture will stay with me for a long time. And I know I need to say more about it than that, but that just seemed the most important thing to say. It's the story of Roseanne Mcnulty (nee Clear), who has spent the last sixty years residing in a psychiatric institute in Ireland. She is writing her memories of her life before her committal and hiding them under her floorboards (calling it her Testimony of Herself). At the same time, Dr Grene is trying to ascertain whether she is actually insane as the hospital is being demolished and he is tasked with deciding which patients should be moved to the new facility and which could be released into the community. But throughout the novel it is made clear that whether Roseanne was committed for the right reasons, or just to get her out of the way, at nearly 100 years old, and having lived two thirds of her life in an institution she is not fit to be released to community living.
Roseanne's testimony starts with her life in 1920's Ireland, a time of great social upheaval, and religious conflict. She talks about her mother (also committed to an asylum), but with more love and feeling about her father. She recounts the whole of her life, including her father's death, her marriage and the eventual birth of her child and committal to Sligo mental asylum. In parallel with this Dr Grene relives certain aspects of his life through his commonplace book, notably the disintegration of his marriage and the reasons why. He is unable to convince Roseanne talk to him though so his account also documents his attempts to discover Roseanne's history for himself. fairly early on it becomes clear that these accounts do not always match up, which leads nicely on to the crux of the novel, the idea that memory is unreliable.
Throughout the story it is never clear exactly whose account is true, if anybody's is. Roseanne's memory is called into question with particular reference to events concerning her father. But this subject is broached fairly early n in the novel, when Roseanne herself says
"Memory, I suppose, if it is neglected becomes like a box room, or a lumber room in an old house, the contents jumbled about, maybe not only from neglect but also from too much haphazard searching in them, and things to boot thrown in that don’t belong there"
Memory and the perception of time, and how it affects life runs throughout this book. Ideas of memory, time and history an be summed up quite succinctly in the following quote
"For 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. "
With the novel set against the backdrop of civil war and religious upheaval in Ireland, it is also focuses on how religious doctrine and dogma, as well as the authority of religious ministers can affect a person's life, and totally control how people view them, treat them and even influence the outcome of their lives. Testimony from a priest was nearly always believed, and in fact led to Roseanne's downfall. Even today, Dr Grene reluctantly says that based on Father Gaunt's testimony, he would have had no choice but to commit Roseanne. Just as a further note on Dr Grene, his and Roseanne's life intertwines to the end of the novel, and I did find the end slightly dissatisfying, although every detail was threaded through the story to ensure it didn't seem too convenient and implausible.