Secret Scripture – Sebastian Barry

17 March 2012
Chapters 1-9 – most of Part 1
Exactly how many crises are we heading towards? There are at least two in store for Roseanne, the main narrator. So far she’s only dropped dark hints about the one that led to her first being incarcerated in a ‘lunatic asylum’ – is that her phrase or the doctor’s? – 60-odd years ago. As for the other one, the imminent closure of the institution that has been her home for decades…. She doesn’t even know about that yet. The doctor knows – and so do we, because his diary entries form a parallel narrative to Roseanne’s. The preparations for shifting out the ancient inmates – a word he deliberately uses instead of patients because it fits the building’s vintage – definitely constitute a crisis for him as he approaches retirement age. But it’s nothing like as serious as what’s going on in his marriage. His image of that relationship, in a novel full of images, is of the embassies of two mutually suspicious nations occupying the same building. We know that the recent apparent thaw, a sudden and utterly unexpected return to the intimacy and sex of early marriage, can really be nothing of the kind. We know his wife has been ignoring letters from the clinic about the swellings in her legs and… and what? She knows she has little time left to live?

Everything about this book is literary. Barry doesn’t attempt to imitate the style of non-professional writers, one of whom, she says, scratches away with a borrowed biro on a stock of unwanted paper she’s recently found. The style is like that of a novelist – somebody a bit like Sebastian Barry. I’m ok with this, because it does away with any pretence that this is not a novel. And once we accept that this isn’t the found memoir of a supposedly real 100-year-old, we can start to think about what it really is. Like the hotel in J G Farrell’s Troubles, this place and its inhabitants are going to be telling us something about Ireland. We’ve already had ‘Civil War’ atrocities and a self-serving Catholic priest, among other things…. But before I try to tell you the rest I’ll finish reading Part 1.

18 March
To the end of Part 1
I didn’t mention that of the two narrators, Roseanne sounds the more entirely sane. Sure, there’s a gothic turn to a lot of the tales she tells – but, given the terrible things she’s witnessed, she’s survived remarkably well. Until one tiny moment near the end of Part 1, I was beginning to assume that the horror she’s been leading up to is that her committal to a mental hospital all those years ago was indeed for ‘social’ reasons – a euphemism for the incarceration endured by many perfectly well-balanced women whose behaviour had caused embarrassment. Now I’m not so sure. The doctor has just salvaged some of her old notes, and they mention the death of her father in the 1920s. The notes refer to his being a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary, murdered by the IRA. This would be fine if Roseanne hadn’t told us, in great detail, of her father’s life first as the superintendent of a cemetery and then, following a cruel turn of events, as a rat-catcher. When she hears about what the doctor has found out she describes feeling as though she’s been stopped up by putty, which she has to struggle to speak through to say that it must be a mistake. Ah. Is there any truth at all in the stories she’s been telling us?

Gothic tales. The first two are stories her father told her, supposedly based on his own experience. One is the old story of the traveller who stays the night in a strange house with both a ghost and a strange landlady, only to discover next morning that the house is derelict and that a murder took place there years before. The other is of a motorcycle crash he witnessed: he saw the rider appear to float over the high wall he’d hit, was almost sure he could see wings – and found the man uninjured on the other side. Simple, superstitious folk stories that he – or do I mean she? – presents as the truth.

Then there are the stories she presents as her own memories, absolutely real and vivid in her telling of them. Her father washing naked (‘the cleanest man in Christendom’), her father taking her to the top of the tower to prove that feathers fall as fast as hammers (in fact they float away, obviously), her father in his little concrete temple where he is master of the Catholic graves despite being a Presbyterian. Are we seeing a pattern here? Where’s her mother? I’ll get back to her. The sad trajectory of their lives is told, inevitably, in stories. The rebels who bring the corpse of one of their young brothers, the fetching of the priest, the shootings by the military – and Roseanne’s father’s consequent expulsion from the temple. The paraffin-soaked rat that escapes from him to re-enter the orphanage via a fireplace – to ignite all the orphan girls’ bedding sheet by sheet. 123 of them – she is specific about the number – don’t survive in the lovingly described flowers of flame. And if you want gothic…

…it’s there at her father’s wake. Her mother had been spending half his meagre wage on repaying a loan she’d taken out to buy a dainty porcelain clock. When he discovers this, she smashes it. After his death – definitely not at the hands of the IRA – Roseanne later finds the tiny metal hands of the clock pinning shut his eyes as he lies in his coffin. Mothers, eh? We know that she is committed not long afterwards, apparently driven over the edge by the poverty of her life. At least, this is what Roseanne tells us, and we haven’t heard anything different from other sources… except the document about her father’s death, of course. Will any of her version turn out to be true? (And why is it in recent novels that it’s become a given for any first-person narrator to be unreliable?)

Dr Grene’s ‘commonplace book’, as he calls it, is mainly about his professional duties. Or it is at first: we hear about the imminent closure of the hospital, the care in the community – he’s as sarcastic about the idea as you would expect – that most of the old patients will face. But he is going through difficulties of his own, and some of it gets into his journal. He’s 65 – God knows what the retirement age is, because he’s facing some years yet, he tells us – and is as lacking in confidence in his own future as he is about his patients’. His wife, since I last wrote about her, has died. Forced to look in the mirror for what he tells us is the first time in years – he sounds, as I’ve already suggested, no more sane than Roseanne – he decides to shave off the straggly beard he’s always had. We first find out about this from Roseanne, who is shocked. You can use beards to hide things, she writes sagely – including the face, she muses. Dr Grene weeps as he finds himself telling her of the death, later writes about the way her family had never wanted the marriage.

So. Early on I wrote that this isn’t really a novel about what it appears to be, that it is really going to tell us something about Ireland. But what? That its own ‘belligerence’ – I can’t remember who uses the word, but it might have been one of the disappointed wives we’ve been introduced to – condemns it to perpetual in-fighting and self-destruction? That the Catholic Church is self-serving and cares nothing for its congregation? Atrocities we’ve recently heard about are the nuns’ routine cruelty towards the poorer girls in Roseanne’s school and the awful priest’s wheedling proposition to the 16-year-old Roseanne: it would be very convenient for her to marry the fat old fart who became the cemetery supervisor in her father’s place. She refuses – and is later almost raped by this man as she seeks some solace in the temple where, for some reason, she’s forgotten he now works. Luckily – and we’re not at all fazed by the turn of events – she’s saved by a passing escaped rebel. He’s one of those who brought in the dead man, had assumed, up until now, that she had fetched the soldiers when she fetched the priest. He’s there to kill her father, but he can’t now, obviously. I’m not even going to try to work out the byzantine convolutions of that little story. But men don’t come out well. And we haven’t even met Tom McNulty yet, the man who really will become her husband – but in a marriage that is going to be highly problematic.

All we know is that we don’t know anything for certain. How could we?

21 March
Part 2
‘One morning – and how everything becomes a little story; once upon a time, I might as well say….’ Who’s this speaking? It happens to be Dr Grene, about to tell us a harrowing story from his childhood (and that he will later feel guilty about for having turned it into an ‘anecdote’). It could just as easily have been Roseanne who, in a riff on memory a few chapters later, wonders whether anything she thinks she remembers is actually true. I wonder why Barry has his characters put into words what the novel is making perfectly clear anyway. To confirm that we get it? Whatever.

As a percentage of pages covered, we get more of the doctor than we did in Part 1. And we get deeper inside his troubled psyche just as Roseanne’s story becomes more conventional. The only gothic we get in Part 2 comes in an experience of his, a moment that could be from an M R James story, he says – his wife loved to read them – in which he hears her answering the phone in her room and then calling his name. This is after she’s been dead and buried for some weeks and he begins to doubt his own sanity – something that echoes one of Roseanne’s deepest fears. Part 2 is full of this kind of overlapping. Even the style of their observations seems to be coming closer together: I noticed her description of moonlight in her room is later echoed by his of sunlight. It might be that Barry isn’t thinking about the style, that what we are getting is simply the way he writes. I’d rather think that it’s part of his bigger project of bringing these two characters closer.

Overlapping. One of the themes is betrayal – because, in a novel about Ireland in the 20th Century, how could it not be? At one point Dr Grene tries to persuade himself that personal betrayals – he’s referring to his own adultery – are not a proof of mankind’s inherent baseness and lack of sympathy for others, but of our need for the closeness of human contact. Of course, he would say that – and, if we’re to believe him, his one night stand with a co-delegate on a conference didn’t even include penetrative sex. Roseanne’s little escapade, if we’re to believe her, didn’t even get as far as a kiss. For both of them, the tiniest of indiscretions make the world fall to pieces, and I’ll come back later to the circumstances of Roseanne’s. It seems to have led to her excommunication from the family – she doesn’t call it that, but the ubiquitous Father Gaunt, the self-serving priest from Part 1, is involved – although matters aren’t fully resolved at the end of Part 2. She’s under house arrest pending… what? And, as we know, Dr Grene was under a different kind of house arrest until the death of his wife.

The other thing we get in Part 2 is a kind of revisionism. There is a complete version available of Roseanne’s rat-nibbled notes that Dr Grene had been looking at in Part 1, sent by a conscientious doctor in the Sligo mental hospital where Roseanne was sent – when? She must have been about 50 when she arrived in Roscommon, where she’s grown old, because the opening line of the novel tells us that she arrived there in 1957. The house-arrest I’ve mentioned is happening when she’s still in her mid-20s, so there are 20-odd years to be filled yet. Guess who wrote the original deposition? In the theocracy that the new Irish state was never supposed to become, who, in novels like this, wields all the power like a despot? It’s Father Gaunt, of course, embarrassed by Roseanne for the second time – she draws our attention to this – when she unwittingly brings scandal upon a good Catholic family.

So it’s his version of events we’re getting now, running parallel to Roseanne’s. And we get more overlaps, some of them closer than others. Yes, her father did have the jobs she remembered – but these came after his disgrace as a member of the constabulary that was working for the losing side in the Civil War. If we can believe Father Gaunt – and I’m deliberately repeating that form of words, for obvious reasons – there really was a burial of a rebel, but it was secret and without her father’s knowledge. And he didn’t hang himself – did I mention that? – he was hanged after a botched attempt at a symbolic execution. Reader… he was taken to the top of that tower from Part 1, beaten half to death with hammers, and had his mouth stuffed with feathers. Roseanne’s memory, as she witnessed this from the ground – she’s on the ground in her own version, too – is distorted by the blow on the head she received from a hammer flung down in frustration. The feathers were coughed out of her father’s mouth as his would-be killers found they couldn’t squeeze his body through the little window at the top – the little window she’s told us about.

Roseanne’s own ‘testimony’, as she calls it, is her history from the age of 16 until her disgrace about ten years later. Most of it is the story of a young Irish girl’s entirely unremarkable life: waitressing job in an upmarket café – only her story, possibly invented, of how she got the job is interesting – followed by a life of films, dances, the awareness of these girls of their own beauty. The McNultys are there, Tom, Jack and their father, also Tom. (And their usually absent brother Eneas, the subject of an earlier novel by Barry, a mysterious figure who apparently works for the police.) The Materfamilias is a formidable Catholic figure, the one Roseanne has already referred to in Part 1 as ‘the real Mrs McNulty’, a position Roseanne seems not to have held for long herself. But she and Tom marry, and all seems conventional enough in its impoverished mid-20th Century Irish way. Only one of the McNultys, Jack, is a success – although old Tom runs a corrugated-iron dance hall and Saturday nights there are famous. The place where Tom and Roseanne live, variously referred to as a shack or hut, is also of corrugated iron.

But. Running alongside all this, in a form which we never quite get to the bottom of in Roseanne’s telling, is the occasional appearance of John Lavelle. He’s the young man whose brother is buried in Part 1 (and again, in a different version, in Part 2). He’d escaped execution, as we know, but spends time in prison before returning to Sligo to work as a road-digger. And, one Saturday, he says casually to Roseanne that he will be on a particular hill next day at three o’clock. Fine. And Roseanne is never quite able to fathom why she meets him there. She explains if to herself by suggesting that this man is her only link to her father, however tenuous and problematic. Well, yes. And as she speaks to him on the hilltop, hearing the story of how his wife and one of his infant sons were shot by the Black-and-Tans in his native coastal village in County Mayo, she hears voices….

What are priests doing going out for a stroll on a Sunday? And why does one of them have to be – guess? Father Gaunt sees Roseanne, and her fate is sealed. How much of this story, with all its implausible elements, is ‘the truth’? As if any story is true in this universe. But one of the eternal verities is the priest’s disapproval, and his retribution is even worse than what he inflicted on her father after the embarrassment at the cemetery. She is back at home to greet Tom, who has been to a rally in Dublin. He isn’t a member of the ruling party, so there’s trouble, and he comes home with blood on him… but never mind that. All seems well – except that after he leaves next day she never speaks to him again because he doesn’t come back. For days – she doesn’t know how many – she stays in the iron hut on her own, unable to remember even moving from the spot. Then she hears the McNultys’ band playing – the dance hall is near where they live – and tries to see him. But everything is wrong, even Tom is wrong, drunk and hectic in the early evening as he tries to play a song that should be much later in the set. It’s a wonderful, disorientating scene. Jack literally bars her way, tells her to go home – which she does, until Jack and Father Gaunt arrive to tell her to stay put until a decision is made. Gulp.

Irish attitudes, the struggles for political power in which winners and losers seem quite arbitrary – and subject to the power of the Church anyway…. All this is going on in the background. And, alongside it all, is Dr Grene seeking out Roseanne more and more importunately as a kind of refuge in a world that’s losing its bearings for him. His guilty story – one, he tells his diary, that he has never told anybody even in the heady days of mutual psychoanalysis during his training – concerns the death of his brother. As a child, he called his brother back across the road – and we know before it happens that the bus he’s mentioned, the one hidden by another going in the opposite direction, is going to kill him. Worse, for Dr Grene, is the fact that this brother had been the unexpected natural child of his own adoptive parents, conceived after his adoption.

The death of the ‘real’ child is another life ruining-event for his mother in a novel full of such family tragedies. (How many? I’ve lost count.) There’s only one with a happy ending, and I don’t really believe it. After having told us that she doesn’t really know why she got the café job, Roseanne tells us of a mother on the local beach, frantic with worry because her two-year-old girl is missing. Roseanne finds her after an intuitive guess that she would have found the cave – you know, the one which was discovered with the oldest evidence of human habitation in Ireland. (Somehow, this goes with the hilltop location of her disgrace, where there is the ritual burial of Queen Maeve 4,000 years ago.) The woman, now the image of relieved motherhood, turns out to be the owner of the café and wonders if Roseanne needs a job…. All I wonder is what this story really represents. We know that there is a baby involved in Roseanne’s life… so who is the frantic mother in her story? And what about that other mother, her own? Roseanne used to look after her, but once she’s been committed – and we never learn the details – she almost forgets about her. Fathers, daughters, mothers, sons… How much more Freudian can you get?

24 March
Part 3 – to the end
I mentioned a happy ending, the one in which Roseanne finds a child who was lost on the beach. In the real story, if that’s what it is, Roseanne gives birth on a beach as the tide rises – Barry gives her narrative everything he’s got to make it an epic storm experience on the scale of King Lear – and, once she’s bitten off the umbilical cord she never sees the child again. ‘She killed it’, writes Father Gaunt in his deposition. When he first reads this, Dr Grene believes it. But, as he carries on reading the priest’s narrative, he finally begins to realise that Father Gaunt has an axe to grind: perhaps this man’s ‘truth’ is one in which Roseanne has consigned the soul of a child to hell by giving birth to it out of wedlock: perhaps he simply means that in the eyes of the Church, she really has ‘killed’ it.

Well, maybe. As the novel approaches its most defiantly implausible revelation – as Barry, in fact, reveals that there really is a story in which a child is found, against all the odds – he is surprisingly generous to more than one character that we’ve come to regard as villains of the piece. Father Gaunt? Sure, he spends something like seven years having the marriage annulled using as his main argument the ‘nymphomania’ of poor Roseanne – but isn’t he only trying to save the messed-up life of Tom McNulty, one of his flock? Mrs McNulty, the one who turns the heavily pregnant Roseanne away into the storm when she desperately comes seeking her help? Well, weren’t there ‘vicissitudes’ in her own life, according to Jack – which we learn, include having two children out of wedlock? Isn’t she bound to fight shy of letting Roseanne bring all that old story rushing back to the family?

This doesn’t work for me. Barry spends a lot time in this section on the theme of historical truth. We had a lot from Roseanne about memory at the end of Part 2, and Part 3 begins with her: ‘Unfathomable. Fathoms. I wonder if that’s the difficulty, that my memory and my imaginings are lying deep in the same place, or one on top of the other like layers of shells and sand in a piece of limestone….’ And so on. This is only a re-working of what has gone before as Roseanne reaches implausibly astute and articulate conclusions about her own unreliability. Meanwhile, Dr Grene is reaching his own conclusions about the reliability of others, realising that there might not be such a thing as historical truth. Near the end, he wonders whether history is ‘any more than memory? And if so, how reliable is it? I would suggest, not very….’ Well, duh. The novel has been signalling this in foot-high letters since page 1.

But I’m not telling you the plot, which there’s a lot of…. Dr Grene has no more ghostly visits from his dead wife. Sometimes, like Roseanne, he imagines that his diary is addressed to a particular reader – and he wishes it could be her. (Roseanne thinks her ideal reader might be the doctor. Or God – she’s not fussy.) His wife isn’t an option, so he continues to turn his attention to Roseanne. Early in Part 3, we approach what feels like an ending for her, as she goes through the story of her house arrest – it really is that – and of Father Gaunt’s matter-of-fact visit after something like a seven-year gap to tell her that her marriage never really happened.

The next big thing feels like a sequence of her overwrought imaginings: an airborne stampede of dragons and other monsters comes screaming towards her – only when they are almost on top of her as she takes one of her nocturnal walks does she recognise them as aeroplanes – and passes overhead. Some time later (days?) Jack approaches, with his face and clothes looking singed and smoke-blackened. A ghost? It must be, because he is in India…. But no, it isn’t Jack – it’s the elusive Eneas, who has survived the planes’ huge bombing-raid on Belfast and has walked all the way to a place where he might find comfort. One thing leads to another, the most natural thing in the world in Roseanne’s presentation of it….

Meanwhile, Dr Grene wonders why he spends so much time looking into her story. Or, to put that another way, when did he turn into the detective who is so necessary in the mystery novel that this has become? And just what is it that he can get from her that no other human being can offer? (Have you guessed yet? I didn’t.) Luckily for him, Barry makes the investigation easy. He finds things out about her background from the Sligo psychiatrist, an old acquaintance as it happens. Someone –John Caine the sweeper? – has found Roseanne’s memoir. And…

…and I’ll come back to Dr Grene, because we get the night of the epic storm when Roseanne goes seeking help. She doesn’t know how close to giving birth she is, and the rest I’ve already described, up to the birth. She comforts the tiny crying infant, out beyond the low-tide causeway to Coney Island, sleeps, wakes… to the sight of an ambulance on its way. (Eh?) Don’t worry about the baby, they tell her, the baby’s fine. And some time later she hears that her son has been taken to ‘Nazareth’ while the deposition from the priest that we know all about sends her to the asylum. The end, sort of: she doesn’t write any more.

So the story is all Dr Grene’s now. I’ll try to be quick. Patients are being transferred elsewhere, so that only the oldest remain. And it turns out that John Caine, the 70-odd-year-old man who comes to sweep Roseanne’s floor, is linked to her: he’s the surviving, brain-damaged son of John Lavelle, sent to the hospital by – who? – to keep an eye on her. Lavelle himself is dead, a former associate of De Valera’s executed in ‘Dev’s’ new order. So who sent John? A nun from the orphanage, Sister Declan. She’s – wait for it – the daughter of Mrs McNulty, evidently a product of one of her vicissitudes: the old woman is obviously not feeling terribly upbeat about her treatment of Roseanne all those years ago. And yes, there was a child and no, Roseanne didn’t kill it. Sister Declan took it to her new posting in Sussex, where strings were pulled to find it adoptive parents.

As I wrote at the beginning, Barry quickly ‘does away with any pretence that this is not a novel’, so he must be hoping that readers don’t find the final revelation preposterous. It’s – what? Symbolic? A reward from a kindly god as these narrators approach old age or death? In Sussex, Dr Grene is given the papers and reads… that little William was adopted by Mr and Mrs Grene: Roseanne is his birth mother. You couldn’t make it up.

Yes you could. And then you finish off your story. Roseanne, who had not been expected to survive her latest illness, is fine and dandy when he gets back to the hospital. He doesn’t want to shock her with the revelation that the man who hasn’t been looking after her well enough for all those decades – he’s full of guilt that he hadn’t tried to get to the bottom of her case before this – is her long-lost son. But he will. He watches the demolition of the hospital, has an impression of it still in place some seconds after the experts have made it collapse in on itself. He visits the site of Roseanne’s hut, finds a rosebush – hers – with a grafted scion. He knows enough about roses to detach the scion, but feels as if ‘it didn’t belong to me.’ That’s how the novel ends – and sometimes I can’t help thinking that Barry goes at least one step too far.

What might readers make of all this? That we demand an explanation? Well, I found one, but in a quotation on Wikipedia rather than in the novel. ‘We were driving through Sligo, and my mother pointed out a hut and told me that was where my great uncle’s first wife had lived before being put into a lunatic asylum by the family. She knew nothing more, except that she was beautiful. I once heard my grandfather say that she was no good. That’s what survives and the rumours of her beauty. She was nameless, fateless, unknown. I felt I was almost duty-bound as a novelist to reclaim her and, indeed, remake her.’ Well, yes. Articulate, as honest as her memory allows her to be – and, as I said at the beginning, entirely sane. What else could a novelist offer her but a voice, his voice, the one that he has spent decades developing? Not that of an institutionalised 100-year-old, then, but as I observed right at the start, ‘that of a novelist – somebody a bit like Sebastian Barry.’ Yep.

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