I chose Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture as my first read of the Man Booker Prize 2008 longlist simply because I had it already. I had bought it a couple of months earlier, attracted by the beautiful writing of the opening pages. I started reading it a few weeks later, but became distracted somewhere along the way, and put it aside. Who knows how much longer it might have languished on my shelves if it hadn’t been brought to the surface by Portillo and co.?
This then was the third time I had read the opening couple of pages, and the surprise was that what had impressed me first time around, I now found somewhat troubling. It seemed more like ‘beautiful writing’ than beautiful writing.
That place where I was born was a cold town. Even the mountains stood away. 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.
(I wonder if the Booker Prize judges will feel the same effect, as they’ll be reading it three times if they shortlist the book.) However this seems a bit uncharitable, as it’s undeniable that what Barry has done here is give his narrator a brilliantly distinctive voice: it sometimes comes out like the voice of a novelist rather than an elderly woman – and even, on occasion, like Yoda (“But small and narrow are all human things maybe”) – but that’s something I can live with. There are baroque images some of which don’t work (“a foaming of flames”) and some of which, surprisingly, do (“His face has a veil of dark blue veins in it, like a soldier’s face that has been too near a cannon mouth when it exploded”). The voice is both fanciful and careful, but the balancing act sometimes loses its footing, and an otherwise sensitive and moving scene –
‘What is your name?’ he said.
‘I don’t know,’ I said, in a sudden panic. I have known him for decades. Why was he asking me this question?
‘You don’t know your own name?’
‘I know it. I forget it.’
‘Why do you sound frightened?’
‘I don’t know.’
– is tipped over the edge into sentimentality by an excess of detail (“I started to cry, not like a child, but like the old, old woman I am, slow, slight tears that no one sees, no one dries”).
The elderly woman is Roseanne McNulty, sister in law of the eponymous Eneas McNulty from Barry’s 1998 debut novel. She has lived in an old lunatic asylum in County Sligo on “the devious roads of Ireland” for, well, for longer than she or anyone else can remember. (“They called the asylum in Sligo the Leitrim Hotel.” “Did they? I never knew that. Why so? Oh, because – yes.” “Half of Leitrim was said to be in it.”) She is in the care of Dr Grene, who wants to find out the circumstances of her arrival at the asylum and to arrange for her transfer – to where? – when the asylum closes down. The narrative alternates between Dr Grene’s diary – an account of “the last days perhaps of this unimportant, lost, essential place” – and Roseanne’s story:
I write out my life on unwanted paper – surplus to requirements. I start with a clean sheet – with my many clean sheets. For dearly I would love now to leave an account, some kind of brittle and honest-minded history of myself, and if God gives me the strength, I will tell this story, and imprison it under the floor-board, and then with joy enough I will go to my own rest under the Roscommon sod.
Barry plays with the reader: we know Roseanne is a resident of a lunatic asylum, so we might treat her account with some scepticism, particularly where it conflicts with what Dr Grene has learned. “And aren’t all our histories tangled and almost foreign to ourselves, I mean, to our imaginations?” There are surprises to be unveiled, and here there is contrast with Andrew Sean Greer’s The Story of a Marriage; Barry’s revelations are natural because they are discovered (or recovered) by the narrators as the story proceeds, and not withheld for authorial effect. However there is one major ‘twist’ which is so garish and blatant that it threatens to destabilize Barry’s carefully assembled structure. It’s not even a twist as such, since all the reader needs to do is think of the most obvious soap opera plot development, and there it is.
Making Roseanne “not only the oldest person in this place, but in Roscommon itself, perhaps even Ireland” enables Barry to cover most of the upheavals of 20th century Irish history refracted through her memory. These include not just the expected conflicts – which are a strong part of the narrative – but social repression, the limits imposed on women, and other factors which lead to Roseanne’s tragedy of waste. Images criss-cross the narratives past and present, particularly institutions where the disadvantaged are kept – the poor, the mad, the orphaned – which remind the reader of the dual meaning of asylum. There are some beautifully judged scenes showing the hierarchy of society in Ireland at the time.
Now the priest went a third time at the cigarette and found he already had quite an ash to deal with and in that silent dumbshow of smokers looked about for an ashtray, an item that did not exist in our house, even for visitors. My father astonished me by putting out his hand to the priest, admittedly a hard hand coarsened by digging, and Fr Gaunt astonished me by immediately flicking the ash into the offered hand, which perhaps flinched tinily for a moment when the heat hit it. My father, left with the ash, looked about almost foolishly, as if there might have been an ashtray put in the room after all, without his knowledge, and then, with horrible solemnity, pocketed it.
And so the reader went a third time at the book and found that it was worth its Booker longlisting after all.