At a recent reading, a member of the audience commented that she wanted to take the book home with her only if Barry himself would accompany it. He was that good and uproariously funny! I was sitting next to a couple of friends who had already read the novel. They both commented that it wasn’t at all the voice in which they had read the book. Excellent, I thought, sometimes being behind the times is an advantage after all.
The genesis of Sebastian Barry’s tale begins in his own family. One day, while driving near Sligo, his mother pointed out a little tin hut and commented “Of course, that’s where that woman stayed for many a year”. That woman turned out to be Barry’s great-aunt. A little research, the discovery that his relative had been institutionalised for social reasons and a fertile imagination combined to produce this year’s Booker-shortlisted novel.
Roseanne McNulty’s tragedy is a fictionalised account related to that of Barry’s great-aunt; the novel his attempt to reconcile himself to being the member of a family that treated one of its own so shabbily. Roseanne is one of the lost people – Barry believing that Irish history is told more truthfully by documenting the stories of the losers, not the winners. Facts don’t always lie on the surface. They must be hunted, dug out, remembered, misremembered.
Roseanne is almost 100 years old, has been institutionalised for 60+ years and care in the community policies mean her psychologist, Dr Greene, must determine whether she is sane enough to be “freed”. Her history is not clear. While Roseanne creates a narrative that makes sense, it is not always factually true. It becomes clear that she has sanitised her history – possibly to remove the terror from the truth, which involves fearful and loathsome incidents replete in the Irish past.
Barry controls his novel beautifully. Past psychological policies contrasting with the present (in many ways just as insane). The narrative voices of Roseanne and Dr Greene contrasting and complimenting. Dr Greene has troubles of his own, which echo the experiences of Roseanne. The fascinating, if uncompromising, portrayal of Irish society in a time when one could be institutionalised for simply not conforming to society’s expectations. The blurring of fact and fiction in the memory. Misrememberings – not lies. A mystery – the solution of which is signposted from the middle of the novel. A solution I was hoping would be avoided.
The only faux pas in an otherwise perfect novel. I’m only deducting a 1/2 star but it rankles much more than that. Could it have been the reason why Ariga triumphed in this year’s Booker?. The Secret Scripture is much more accomplished than The White Tiger but the ending is a veritable rafter in the eye and so I have still to fall out with this year’s Booker judges.
Final point – I would recommend The Secret Scripture to all lovers of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. There are common themes, yet The Secret Scripture has a broader scope, documenting not just the personal tragedy of one unjustly incarcerated, but the troubled history of the Irish nation.