The Secret Scripture is a double narrative that mixes Irish history, family history and psychoanalysis in mellifluous poetic colloquialisms. At the centre of the story is Roseanne Clear, the principal narrator, an inmate in a lunatic asylum who has been there for perhaps fifty years. She is writing her story down: the story of her childhood, her father, her husband, her baby and the violences and beauties of her early life.
Her personal memoir is interspersed with her psychiatric record, kept by the asylum’s doctor, Dr Grene – a man, who like a lot of other men in the book, is intrigued by Roseanne and wants to get something out of her. He wants her story. He also wants to offload some personal sorrows about his dead wife and failed marriage. His record of Roseanne from his observations and official reports sometimes corroborates, but often contradicts Roseanne’s own memories. And then in his stretches of the narrative, he merges her story with his own.
The lyricism of The Secret Scripture sometimes edges on the twee, but stays beautiful. Couched in the beguiling language are some big ideas about history and the multiplicity of stories. The book is partly an examination of how the same series of events can be told, retold and forgotten in many different ways.
Barry has dealt in historical fiction before, and uses his extensive knowledge of Irish history to show how the little personal stories make up the big narratives that end up in history books. It is something Barry has been praised for in his other works. Fintan O’Toole, a drama critic for the Irish Times, said Barry’s ‘incredible achievement’ had been fusing ‘experience of family history with a very serious examination of Irish history… It’s a very useful corrective to monolithic ideals [of history] that have existed in Ireland’.
Barry brings out a concern in his new novel, by prefacing it with a quotation from Anglo-Irish writer Maria Edgeworth:
’there is much uncertainty even in the best authenticated ancient and modern histories; and that love of truth […] necessarily leads to a love of secret memoirs and private anecdotes’.
‘I am trying to rescue my characters from the cold hand of history,’ says Barry in an interview with The Observer, ‘and from the silences that surround certain turbulent periods in our own history’. It is an interesting exercise in how we think about history and how important it is to tell our own stories. Some characters in this novel are taken and covered by that cold hand – Eenas – the Catholic man who joined the army, is a ghost. And, as confessional as Roseanne’s testimony is, it is full of striking absences: how did her father die? What does happen to her mother?
The second quotation prefacing the book is from Sir Thomas Brown, ‘The greatest imperfection is in our inward sight, that is, to be ghosts unto our own eyes’. It makes the interesting connection between stories in history and stories in mental health: how the lack of the story or an understanding of who you are, can erode a person’s sanity and personality. And how being forgotten or discarded by your society – rendered a ghost – can be so detrimental to mental wellbeing.
However, though these complex ideas are expressed in fluid pleasurable language, I think the plot suffers under the weight of them: it is not a sturdy enough or convincing structure. The plot is too wandering, too miserable and in places, too sentimental. Roseanne’s father is murdered, her husband disowns her, her baby son is taken away immediately after she gives birth to him on the beach in midwinter and it all culminates in her being interned for nymphomania in a lunatic asylum by a Catholic priest for a substantial majority of her adult life.
As a beautiful young woman, Roseanne is surrounded and shaped by men. Not to labour the comparison, but as the country of Ireland, or Eíre, is often represented as a woman, it is not difficult to see parallels between the plight of Roseanne, beautiful and abused, and the plight of the country. Her story is more symbolic than human sometimes. And in pursuing this symbolism, Barry rather loses the credibility of the plot. This is where the melancholy sentimentality creeps in.
Wistfulness is perhaps inherent in the nature of memoirs, but certain things are too idealised, the bad is evil, rather than simply banal. Thus, Roseanne’s life sometimes has the glassy, gilt-edged feel of hagiography rather than a story or even memory of a real living woman. An emotional look at the murky lies and tricks of history and the redeeming power of words, but too sentimental to be a great novel.