Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 320 pages; 2009.
When I read Sebastian Barry’s 2005 Booker shortlisted novel A Long Long Way several summers ago I found it one of the most moving books I’d ever read. There was something about the story of an Irish lad caught between two wars that really resonated with me, and I promptly ordered my father a copy because I knew he’d enjoy the Great War element. Almost three years later I still find myself occasionally thinking about this story, always the sign of a great piece of fiction.
Then, last August, I acquired a copy of Barry’s 2008 Booker shortlisted novel The Secret Scripture. It languished on my bedside table unopened and unread for months, and even its triumph at the Costa Book Awards in January, where it won the Costa Book of the Year Award, didn’t spur me to pick it up. Then, on my recent trip to Ireland, I discovered a copy of it in the holiday cottage I was renting and felt it was no use putting it off any longer: I had to read it to see how it measured against my very high five-star opinion of A Long Long Way.
The Secret Scripture didn’t disappoint. It is a magnificent story about memory and the tricks our minds play on us, and how society has a habit of condemning the innocent to live lives of quiet desperation and unnecessary struggle.
The story is split between two narrators, Roseanne McNulty, possibly the oldest woman in Ireland who has been a patient at Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital since 1957, and Dr William Greene, the senior psychiatrist who is charged with determining which patients can be re-released into the community once the present building is demolished.
Dr Greene, an outsider (in the sense that he’s not Catholic) grieving over the death of his wife, spends a lot of time with Roseanne, whom he describes as “my old friend” and the “oldest person in this place”.
She has been a fixture, and not only represents the institution, but also, in a curious way, my own history, my own life.
During their sessions in which he assesses Roseanne’s suitability for discharge, he finds himself confessing things to her that he would normally keep quiet. Meanwhile, Roseanne gives little of herself away, preferring to make her confessions in a secret diary that she keeps hidden under the floorboards. It is these revealing diary extracts which make up her side of the narrative.
Eventually, over the course of the book, you learn of the joys and horrors of Roseanne’s life and how she came to be incarcerated in the asylum. But because she readily admits that everything she recalls “may not be real” and that she has “taken refuge in other impossible histories, in dreams, in fantasies” you’re never quite sure if she is a reliable narrator or not. Towards the end of the novel she confesses that her memories and her imaginings are “lying deeply in the same place” and that the process of excavating them is troublesome.
Dr Greene, who is not privy to Roseanne’s written confessional, has his own suspicions about her inconsistent memory, which he puts down to “tangled histories”:
Not only can I not get her story from herself, I have versions of her life that I think she would reject.
Eventually, these two diverse narrative threads, which dance around each other, meld together, culminating in a surprise ending, which is devastating in its impact.
Unfortunately — and this is where I tend to agree with the Costa judges who called it “a flawed novel” — this tightening of loose ends felt too contrived for my liking, too neat, too packaged. It didn’t help that I guessed the ending but had spent the last 50 or so pages convincing myself that I had it wrong, because surely Barry would leave in the ambiguities to allow the reader to come to their own conclusions about what really happened.
Does this matter though? No book is ever perfect and while The Secret Scripture might rely on two major coincidences for its climax to work, it does not detract from the highly emotional story told in such an effortless, beautiful way. And it certainly wouldn’t put me off recommending it to anyone looking for something exquisitely written, intelligent and moving.
If you liked this book, you might also like Salley Vickers’ The Other Side of You which treads similar territory in terms of narrative, content and style.