Barry, Sebastian: The Secret Scripture

Seven of us were there on a warm evening, and all had warm feelings about Barry’s novel – feelings shared in emails by some who couldn’t come. The proposer, born in Ireland, spoke of the richness of Irish literature, plays, poetry and fiction. Just for fiction, following older masters such as Joyce, Beckett and Flann O’Brien, there were such figures as William Trevor, Edna O’Brien, Jennifer Johnstone, John McGahern,– and in the next generation John Banville, Colm Toibin and Sebastian Barry.

     Barry was born in Dublin in 1955 and educated in that city, taking a degree at Trinity College. He has been a very successful playwright (though none of us had seen his plays), and a multi-prize-winning novelist (The Secret Scripture won both the Costa and the James Tait Black). His novels are mostly grouped in cycles about two families, the Dunnes and the McNultys. Barry’s latest – and hugely impressive – novel, Days without End, belongs to the McNulty group, as does our novel, though only tangentially, through the tragic marriage of the heroine to a McNulty and her fraught relations with all the family.

     Critics have gone into raptures at the quality of Barry’s writing (‘beautiful prose’, ‘exquisitely written’) and the group went along with this, picking out striking turns of phrase, but also the subtle presentation of moods and feelings. There was some discussion of what seemed like a particularly Irish ability to write powerful and inventive English. Just the gift of the gab, maybe, or the outsider situation of Ireland in relation to dominating neighbour – one member of the group drew a parallel with the richness of Indian writing in English.

    We did wonder if the writing mightn’t be too ‘beautiful’ for the two narrators whose stories make up the novel, respectively a hundred-year-old woman and a self-condemning psychiatrist. It was noted that Roseanne seems chaotic in her life but composed in her writing (her text is supposed to be rapidly concealed under floorboards, quite a feat for such an old person). It could also be argued that the two narrative voices are not distinct enough (though [spoiler] the narrators turn out to be closely related). But on the whole we were happy with this, admiring such touches as the hammers and feathers that come into the two differing accounts of Roseanne’s father’s death.

     Much of the discussion was about these different versions of the past, both personal and political. None of the versions presented in the novel trumps all the rest – everyone is seen as struggling to catch hold of an elusive past. Memory is unreliable, and so by implication is history. ‘Fake news’ reared its ugly head here – which led to talk of Brexit and the odd ways it’s related to the Irish problems which fill this novel. It’s not a history book, but it doesn’t take too much for granted, though most of us didn’t know much about the Irish blueshirts, The story of Roseanne is linked through all sorts of threads with the tragic history of Ireland in the years following the Treaty and Partition – and although at the end there seems to be a sort of reconciliation, a willingness to bury the past maybe, more recent events (the novel was published in 2008) make you wonder how much of this is really dead and buried. It certainly continues to provide rich material for novelists.

     We admired Barry’s generosity to different points of view. It’s remarkable that this male author tries to adopt the voice and point of view of a 100-year-old woman living in an asylum. Roseanne is not one to condemn, nor is Barry. Even the villainous Father Gaunt, representative of the unforgiving Church, is given some human touches – though generally the Church doesn’t come well out of this book. In fact there’s sympathy for almost all the characters, however unpleasant some of their doings may be – the most sympathetic being the victims, Roseanne of course, but also the mysterious Eneas McNulty, the romantic republican John Lavelle, his son Seanin (John Kane), and even the deeply ambiguous figure of Roseanne’s father. One member wondered why we are so much drawn to these figures in fiction who make a mess of their lives –the excessively passive acceptance of her fate by Roseanne and the self-doubt and self-accusation of Dr Grene.

    One point some members were doubtful about was the way in which the two apparently different stories are brought together at the end. Too good to be true? But Barry was praised for avoiding the obvious recognition scene that apparently figures in the film version of the novel (none of us had seen the film). A parallel was made with the coincidences in Dr Zhivago – not exactly true to life but carrying a weight of meaning.

   To sum up – a striking unanimity in favour of the novel, and a desire to read more, to follow up some of the other McNultys – not to mention the Dunnes.

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