Some quick thoughts on The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry. I enjoyed this immensely and I was blown away with some of the writing. I was initially wary since I thought it would be too close to The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. An old woman locked up in an Irish mental institution which is closing down and the question becomes: how and why did she get there? There’s also the parallel story of her psychiatrist, Dr Grene, and their stories weave closer together as the novel progresses.
One of the many joys of reading is working out how the plot will develop and I was very happy that I managed to guess the twist from some distance out. That’s masterful writing from Barry because he sows those innocent-looking almost throwaway ideas which then germinate in your mind.
One of the things I liked about this novel was the way it plays with memory and story-telling. You realise about halfway through that Roseanne McNulty (the mad woman in the attic) is an unreliable storyteller and there’s the back and forth between her account of her childhood (growing up in Sligo at the time of the troubles, with a reclusive mother and a father who was a gravedigger) and that of the cruel priest Father Gaunt. There’s also the power of the Catholic church, the political and social unrest and then the beauty of that part of Ireland. The description of the poor, slightly mad, isolated and pregnant Roseanne standing on the beach at Strandhill with the sensory overload of the German planes right overhead was wonderfully evocative:
The lights widened and grew taller, and then it was roaring, gathering and gathering, and then it was what looked like the edge of a flying carpet of monsters, and then that noise had grown into an enormous waterfall, and I was looking up, indeed like a mad woman, certainly feeling as mad as a hatter, and fuller and fuller, bigger and bigger came the noise and the lights, till I could see the round bellies of individual parts of it, and metal noses, and gigantic whirrings, and it was airplanes, dozens of them … something out of Revelation … (p.243)
You get the idea of the very close, lyrical descriptive writing which Barry uses. The Irish Independent says:
“Barry is an unrivalled chronicler of lost lives … He has imagined the life, thoughts and feelings of Roseanne with such extraordinary empathy that she comes to seem a much-loved intimate of the reader.”
If the book drags in parts and a bit in the beginning, then the last third more than makes up for it. Getting to the end I went straight back to the beginning to see how differently I viewed Roseanne’s descriptions in the light of my subsequent knowledge.
I suppose there were aspects of the novel that troubled me. Roseanne is a wonderfully-evoked character but part of me baulked at yet another description of a seemingly powerless woman who is abused by the system. I wondered why she didn’t just run away. Was her life really so constrained that she had to stay locked up for almost all of her life? Perhaps there’s something about the male author and the powerless female character which makes me suspicious. But the main male character is equally powerless in his own way, so I guess it evens out. But the question remains for me: where are the ‘good’ (as in nuanced and empowered) female characters? Roseanne becomes a bit of a saint as the novel progresses, which naturally makes me suspicious. I think if I had to choose between this and Esme Lennox, I’d opt for Maggie O’ Farrell’s book. But I heartily recommend this one. It’s brilliant.