Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Sebastian Barry's "The Secret Scripture": Book Review

Continuing the fictional elaborations of his own family's facts, Barry tells of Irish repression movingly in this densely written but often poetic novel. Following "The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty," Roseanne Clear McNulty enters the saga around the same time, the Irish Civil War following partial independence in the early 1920s. After a tragic event in Sligo town during the internecine war brings unwarranted scorn upon her Presbyterian father, Roseanne must grow up isolated from defenders, increasingly compromised by the scrutiny of censorious Fr. Gaunt.

What transpires crosses over with the story of Eneas, and while the details will be left for you to learn, this narrative tells a rather familiar story of loss and yearning effectively, renewing by the beauty of its ruminative style a landscape harsh and barren, within the lives of men and women and especially those, like Roseanne, confined as was her mother to an asylum for her own attempts to break free of the constraints of early 20c Catholic-ruled Ireland.

Still, no story set here can be all bleak. She writes of her native city:
"A hot Irish day is such a miracle we become mad foreigners in a twinkle. The rain drives everything indoors and history with it. There is a lovely lack of anything on a hot day, and because our world in its inner truth is so wet, the surprised greens of the fields and hills seem to burn with a sort of bewilderment, a wonderment. The land looks lovely to itself, and the girls and boys along the strand are painted into the tawny yellows and the blues and the greens of the sea, also burning, burning. Or so it seemed to me. The whole town seemed to be there, everything suffering the same brushstrokes of the heat, everything joining and melding." (142)

Later, however, the madness with which daughter as mother is diagnosed with and confined by hints at deeper suffering. Her story intersperses with Dr. Grene who researches the case of this hundred-year-old inmate at Roscommon's asylum. Roseanne tells him: "I do remember terrible dark things, and loss, and noise, but it is like one of those terrible dark pictures that hang in churches, God knows why, because you cannot see a thing in them." The doctor tells her "that is a beautiful description of traumatic memory." (101)

The doctor, "the biggest agnostic in Ireland," struggles with his own loss, and seeks in Roseanne to solve her mystery, and perhaps his. "But we are never old to ourselves. That is because at the close of day the ship we sail in is the soul, not the body." (177) He too seeks understanding of death and loss, as does Roseanne. Betrayals can be eased by desires to do right by others. "We like to characterise humanity as savage, lustful, and basic, but that is to make strangers of everyone. We are not wolves, but lambs astonished in the margins of the fields by sunlight and summer." (178)

I admit the betrayal that Dr. Grene confesses at this point appeared to me very minor and quite forgivable, but in the context of his great loss recollected, it may loom much larger in his guilty mind. Barry seeks to examine precisely this conflict between what we are accused of, by ourselves or others, and what can and should and must be forgiven and restored. In a time of cruelty for causes and utter suppression of desire, Roseanne represents a frail cry of flawed but innocent humanity.

One caveat: the depth with which Roseanne writes down her story in such rich prose does tend to blend too much with the doctor's own diary's moods, and Barry for both seems to fall into an overly rich, and rather too-studied, prose style that can slow the pace of the narrative dramatically. Some readers may like to linger in its shallows, but others may want the plot to quicken.

There aren't facile solutions for men and women caught in compromise in a century of clerical domination and political oppression. The wonder of Irish scenery conflicts with its terrors, and its inhabitants are caught within both splendid days and terrible nights. After decades, how much of what transpired can only be recreated partially by Dr. Grene. "The one thing that is fatal in the reading of impromptu history is a wrongful desire for accuracy. There is no such thing." (279)

(P.S. I have reviewed "The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty" and "A Long Long Way," a harrowing novel of WWI through an Irish soldier's eyes, on my blog, and on Amazon US where this review was posted 12-9-09)

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