By Sebastian Barry
Faber and Faber, 2008
Summary from PW:
The latest from Barry (whose A Long Way was shortlisted for the 2005 Booker) pits two contradictory narratives against each other in an attempt to solve the mystery of a 100-year-old mental patient. That patient, Roseanne McNulty, decides to undertake an autobiography and writes of an ill-fated childhood spent with her father, Joe Clear. A cemetery superintendent, Joe is drawn into Ireland's 1922 civil war when a group of irregulars brings a slain comrade to the cemetery and are discovered by a division of Free-Staters. Meanwhile, Roseanne's psychiatrist, Dr. Grene, investigating Roseanne's original commitment in preparation for her transfer to a new hospital, discovers through the papers of the local parish priest, Fr. Gaunt, that Roseanne's father was actually a police sergeant in the Royal Irish Constabulary. The mysteries multiply when Roseanne reveals that Fr. Gaunt annulled her marriage after glimpsing her in the company of another man; Gaunt's official charge was nymphomania, and the cumulative fallout led to a string of tragedies. Written in captivating, lyrical prose, Barry's novel is both a sparkling literary puzzle and a stark cautionary tale of corrupted power.
The premise of contradictory narratives is always intriguing. As they say, there are two sides two every story... and the truth often lies somewhere in between. In The Secret Scripture, these narratives slowly unfold to give us a picture of 100 year old Roseanne McNulty's life.
"For history as far as I can see is not the arrangement of what happens, in sequence and in truth, but a fabulous arrangement of surmises and guesses held up as a banner against the assault of withering truth." page 55
Within the first few pages, the beauty of Barry's lyrical prose was obvious, but I just wasn't able to give it my full attention. The Secret Scripture is indeed a wonderful book, but with the hustle and bustle of year-end school activities, I often went for days without picking it up.
There were numerous passages I marked for gorgeous writing or profound thoughts, but I'll share these three:
Roseanne, on her mother:
"Please remember that my mother was very beautiful, though perhaps not so beautiful now, as her silence had found an echo in some bleak thin cloth that seemed to be pulled over the skin of her face. She was like a painting with its varnish darkening, obscuring the beauty of the work." page 66
"It is always worth itemising happiness, there is so much of the other thing in a life, you had better put down the markers for happiness while you can. When I was in that state, everything looked beautiful to me, the rain slicing down looked like silver to me, everything was of interest to me, everyone seemed at ease with me, even those slit-eyed cornerboys of Sligo, with the yellow fingers from the coffin nails they smoked, the yellow stain above their lips where the fag was stuck in permanent." page 141
" Memory, I must suppose, if it is neglected becomes like a box room, or a lumber room in an old house, the contents jumbled about, maybe not only from neglect but also from too much haphazard searching in them, and things to boot thrown in that don't belong there... It makes me a little dizzy to contemplate the possibility that everything I remember may not be real, I suppose. There was so much turmoil at that time that - that what? I took refuge in other impossible histories, in dreams, in fantasies? I don't know." page 201
Ultimately, I was more impressed with the writing than the actual plot. Very near the end, a plot twist occurred that I found just too 'low', or coincidental, for a writer of this caliber. Would I have seen this coming had I paid closer attention? I've procrastinated writing the review, in hopes of coming up with some firmer, more profound thoughts, but none came . I remain somewhat ambivalent, but mostly disappointed, with the way this was tied up...perhaps just a bit too neatly, but I fear I may be in the minority here.
In conclusion, I loved Barry's writing and will most certainly read more of his work. As for The Secret Scripture, it was an enjoyable book based on an interesting premise, with writing that shines brighter than the plot.
My rating: 3.5 / 5
Have you read The Secret Scripture? Did you see the plot twist coming, and did its neatness bother you? Are there books you've read where the writing outshines the plot?