If you haven't read "The Secret Scripture", do consider it. It's a wonderful story, beautifully told.
if you haven't read the book but think you might want to, don't read the review. I give away pretty much everything in the plot!
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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.
These seem not my thoughts at all, but maybe are borrowed out of old readings…But they feel as if they are mine.
-Roseanne McNulty, From Sebastian Barry’s “The Secret Scripture”
Where can I begin to describe this book? Should I talk about the magnificence and humility of the narrator? Should I tell you about the threads of plot, closely coiled on the woolen blanket of this story? Should I describe how the human experience flows through this book, a heavy and seductive stream of deceptive memory and loss?
The Secret Scripture is one of the most powerful books I have ever read. Its power is in its subtlety – in the questions that remain after you have read the final page. The narration is in two parts: one is written, in secret, by an old woman living out the last of her days in a decayed institution as archaic as she. Roseanne has been there so long that she is not sure when she arrived. Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital has been her home, her sanctuary, and her prison for so many years that she has become one with it, and cannot leave although the Hospital is shortly to be closed, and the more able of its residents released into the ‘community’.
The man responsible for evaluating the residents, one by one, as to their fitness for life ‘outside’, is Dr. Grene who, as the alternate narrator, reveals his own tragedies to the reader as Roseanne reveals hers.
Roseanne’s story, written on a collection of unwanted scrap paper with a ball-point pen given to her by Dr. Grene, is written as a way to leave something of herself alive; a final task to complete before she can go to her rest with joy. It unfolds slowly, beginning with her father, Joe. In fact, Roseanne’s entire story is compassed about by this man, who we learn to see in a certain way based on what she tells us.
If this story has a hero, Joe Clear is that hero. He is a fountain of joy, we learn, a hale and honest man with a rich singing voice and a generosity of spirit that seems to envelop and exalt Roseanne, his only child. He is the kind of man that you want to know – you want to talk to him and learn from him, listen to his tall tales and sit at his feet, smiling up at him.
And if the story has a villain, Father Gaunt is it.
A small, precise, preternaturally clean Catholic priest, the aptly named Father Gaunt is the symbol of all that is unfeeling, chilly, clinical, methodical, and sinister. He is, in one way or another, directly or indirectly, the author of all the misfortunes that befall both Joe Clear and Roseanne herself (though Roseanne repeatedly denies this, especially early in the book). He is, in fact, the man responsible for her long internment – or one could say interment – at Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital, by way of the “Sligo Lunatic Asylum”.
Through all of Roseanne’s reminiscences about her past, Father Gaunt consistently recurs as a malevolent presence. He manipulates her father into poverty and her mother into prostitution, manipulates Roseanne herself into divorce and disgrace, and then, eventually, tidies her away into the institution and, one gathers, metaphorically dusts his hands off and walks away.
The real tragedy of the story, though, lies in the fact of Roseanne’s bond with the hospital. She is so deeply ingrained in the place that she is, by her own testament and according to the assessment of the doctor, unable to leave. Not able to disconnect from it.
One of the many themes of the book is that of immuring, or walling away. The author repeatedly uses images that conjure towers, tombs, mausoleums…smooth stone edifices built to restrain.
“I sit here in my niche like a songless robin – no, like a mouse that died under the hearthstone where it was warm, and lies now like a mummy in the pyramids.”
“In the pyramids”? In the tombs of great kings? There’s a burial here, but there is also an exaltation – a transformation.
But if that is how Roseanne describes herself, there is also, later, a story of a man, locked into a basement by his wife and starved to death.
There is a story of girls, many young girls, kept unloved in an orphanage and then, pitied too late, dying in flames.
There is a story of babies, “surplus” babies as Roseanne calls them, laid on beds and left to die in a room with holes in the walls, the icy rain coming through holes in the ceiling.
There are nuns, who Roseanne describes as “savagery and modesty mixed”, in a convent.
Tidying people away.
But as easy as it would be to portray the hospital as a terrible, sinister place, the author does not always do so. Dr Grene, the administrator, is a sympathetic character – a man with true compassion and, it seems, a true vocation. He sees himself as a caretaker. (I won’t use the newer word, ‘caregiver’, because it feels wrong here.) In his own words: “I have a really stupid habit of feeling fatherly towards my patients, even motherly.” Then he lectures himself, “I must…resist compassion at every turn, because compassion is my weakness.”
So the doctor seems to be a good man. But he has cheated on his wife, has colluded in the imprisonment of “well” humans, and has spent his entire career working within a system he knows to be diseased and self-serving. Then, is the doctor a bad man?
Is the hospital a good place for Roseanne, or a bad place?
This question is at the core of the story, and at the core of its tragedy. Throughout the novel there are scenes of institutions, hospitals, prisons – and scenes of escape from those prisons; mostly escape by death. The marginalized and unwanted people of society, the ones with no net of loving family to catch them, have been put neatly into their little boxes where they won’t be a bother to anyone.
And yet, Roseanne is happy here.
And yet, Roseanne dreads freedom.
What is the greater cruelty: to take an old woman from her fifty years’ home, to force her into a ‘community’ where she will be, just as she was all those years ago, uncared for, unloved, and unwanted? At best, an object of pity? Or to leave her there in the place – the prison – where she is happy but which she knows is not home, to count out the last of her days behind walls that keep her in, where she considers herself to be safe?
Dr Grene speaks to Roseanne about leaving.
“God knows…no one could be happy here.”
“I am happy,” I said.
“…You might consider this place your home.”
“Well. You as well as any other person have the right to be free if you are suitable for, for freedom. I suppose even at one hundred years of age you might wish to – to walk about the place and paddle in the sea in the summer, and smell the roses – “
I did not intent to cry out, but as you will see these small actions, associated in most people’s minds with the ease and happiness of life, are to me still knives in my heart to think of.
Does Roseanne want to leave the hospital? She says, herself, that she wants it but dreads it.
But can the reader trust what Roseanne says? Can we trust what she remembers, and can we trust her stories, that, to quote Roseanne herself, she tells with “perfect force mainly because she believes every word of them”?
The Secret Scripture will echo in my head and in my heart for a long, long time. Each word of this book had an exquisite delicacy that compelled me forward through every drop of beauty and slice of tragedy in the story…the language is both simple and rich, the characters full-throated and living. It’s one of the loveliest works I’ve ever read.
I wrote a little book club discussion guide -- if you are interested in delving a little deeper into this book, find a buddy to read it with you, and take a look at some questions.