Monday, 29 December 2008

Sebastian Barry's The secret scripture

Just having a go at a little personal review!!

I wanted to read this book because I heard great things about his previous one, A long long way, and both it and this one were shortlisted for the Booker prize. The book is set in Ireland in contemporary times, with flashbacks to the 1930s, and is told through the voices of two characters: Roseanne, a centenarian who has lived in a mental institution for 60 years or so, and Dr Grene, a psychiatrist at the institution for 35 years. As Roseanne writes her life-story, which she hides under boards in her room, Dr Grene investigates the reasons for her being there with a view to deciding her future. What falls out is a tortured story of religion, family and politics at a time in Ireland when sides had to be taken, rules took precedence and humanity was in short supply.

I loved the book, though had some reservations. The ending was a little contrived and I think he got Roseanne's voice better than Dr Grene's, despite the fact that he's a male writer. Particularly towards the end, Dr Grene's voice felt a bit forced, as though even Barry knew his plot resolution was a bit too neat and didn't quite know how to do it.

What I liked was the language, the characters (though most are loosely drawn) and the themes. I loved the musings on "truth" and "history". This is not a new idea, but I liked the way he mused here. I also liked its relationship of truth to health, that Roseanne's "truth" was a healthy one.

Roseanne is an interesting narrator. I would call her reliable not because she tells us the correct facts necessarily (as it appears that she may not have) but because, as Grene says at the end, she tells us "her" truth and this truth "radiated health". It may not hold up in a court of law but it gets to the heart of who Roseanne is. It is "vexing and worrying", though, as Roseanne says, when different people's truths (such as Fr Gaunt's and Roseanne's) cross each other. How true is Father Gaunt's anyhow? His conveys the facts but contains no humanity, let alone empathy. He has no idea of who Roseanne is, but he does know the "law" (of the church at least).

This is my favourite aspect of the book - the issues it raises about truth - and I love the little touch re "truth" and health/psychological cure. It makes me think that we should always keep a look out for two truths – the facts and inner meaning - and decide which one should take precedence in any given situation. In a court of law the facts perhaps need to take precedence but we should also heed the "hidden inner" truth as well. When dealing with our relationships perhaps the "hidden inner" truth is the one we should look for, as in WHY is this person saying or doing this, not WHAT did they say or do.

The language is beautiful and poetic. Poetic usually means two things to me, mostly in combination - language that is rich in imagery, as Barry's is, and language that has a strong rhythm that is often though not always based on breaking the rules of prose. Barry has great rhythm - it doesn't tend to break the rules (it doesn't, for example, have a lot of sentence fragments) but he uses punctuation and long sentences interspersed with short sentences to give a lovely flow. He also uses repetitions. Take this near the opening - it almost reads like blank verse:

"That place where I was born was a cold town. Even the mountains stood sway. They were not sure, no more than me, of that dark spot, those same mountains.

There was a black river that flowed through the town, and if it had no grace for mortal beings, it did for swans, and many swans resorted there, and even rode the river like some kind of plunging animals, in floods.

The river also took the rubbish down to the sea, and bits of things that were once owned by people and pulled form the banks, and bodies too, if rarely, oh and poor babies, that were embarrassments, the odd time. The speed and depth of the river would have been a great friend to secrecy.

That is Sligo town I mean."

He sets a powerful tone in these opening few paras - the rhythm is slow but with just an edge of awkwardness that catches you off guard. And the language conveys something untoward - "cold", "dark", "black", "rubbish", "secrecy". These are not repeated but, used in combination in such a few concentrated paras, they give us a sense of the story to come. I found this opening quite wonderful and it engaged me quickly.

I was a little unsure of Dr Grene. As I read it I kept wondering what the point of all the Bet stuff was...even though I did find a lot of it quite moving. It was mainly towards the end that he started to lose me...when he started to more actively investigate Roseanne's history. From a plot point of view it was logical and understandable, but the voice seemed to lose it a bit - it became a little prosaic, ordinary in some sense that seemed to lose Grene's particularity.

In Dr Grene's choice in the last para of the bright and open rose rather than a uniform neat one, we can see an acceptance of being open to many truths, to the imperfections of the world (as Roseanne appears to be) than to that neat, dry version of the world that we get from Fr. Gaunt. I think this softens the neat plot conclusion somewhat - as does the fact that despite this neatness, he doesn't go in for the full cliched emotions that would be drawn out in a simple genre book.


  1. Hi sue thanks for review. Some interesting themes to consider. My main comment is not having read the book, I am a little mystified about what the book is about - prob a brief plot summary would be helpful.
    You have suggested some good questions and topics for discussion... Kate

  2. Thanks Kate - yes, I see your point...I actually gave away the ending in my first go at it! But even then I didn't describe the basic story. Will edit it...

  3. Sue - you've set the bar very high - well done! I guess a small 'edit' is in order.

  4. I'm not suggesting we all have to do this, nor all do it for all books we read...but thanks for the compliment. I think we should be free and easy. Five word reviews or just quick off the cuff comments or anything in between are fine too. Whatever takes our fancy, eh!

  5. Oh and Kate, I have added a little description of what the book is about in the second para. Do you think that is good enough?

  6. Hi Sue
    The review looks great, and the plot summary and context really makes a difference to my appreciation of your comments.
    I especially liked your comment on the language, and on the layers of meaning in the book.
    I must have a go at a review of my own soon....Kate

  7. Thanks Kate ... and please do have a go yourself. As I said to Celeste it's not a must and I would hate people to feel put off, but I think it would be fun for those of us who enjoy such a challenge. I'll probably do quick comments sometimes, nothing sometimes, and a longer one other times. Have just finished Joan London's The good parents, and am now reading Susan Duncan's Salvation Creek.


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