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Twice-told tales

In Sebastian Barry's vivid novel of an evolving Ireland, a doctor and his patient plumb the depths of their souls

(GIANLUCA FOLI)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Margot Livesey
June 15, 2008

The Secret Scripture
By Sebastian Barry
Viking, 300 pp., $24.95

Several angels are described in the course of Sebastian Barry's new novel, "The Secret Scripture," but the one that was most vivid to me, although never expressly mentioned, was Walter Benjamin's angel of history. I heard its dark wings flapping, felt its despairing presence, as Barry once again returns, as he did so successfully in his last novel, "A Long Long Way," to the troubled history of his native Ireland. But he has now edged closer to the present. While "A Long Long Way" is set during World War I and the struggle for home rule, most of "The Secret Scripture" is set between the wars, and the rest, rather startlingly, in the present - President Bush is mentioned. The new novel also has a more complex relationship with history, for at its heart lies the belief that the past can be known only imperfectly - all accounts come to us refracted through the unreliable mechanism of the human brain. Even when records are kept, they are often damaged, or lost.

The novel purports to be the writings of two characters who have not previously shown much interest in committing themselves to paper. The first, Roseanne McNulty, is a patient in Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital. At the age of nearly 100, knowing that she will soon be in her coffin, Roseanne decides to "write out [her] life on unwanted paper -- surplus to requirements. . . . For dearly would I love now to leave an account, some kind of brittle and honest-minded history of myself." The other writer is Dr. Grene, the senior psychiatrist at Roscommon. The hospital building has recently been found unfit for habitation and, faced with moving to smaller premises, Dr. Grene needs to re-evaluate his patients and decide how many are fit to return to the community. This in turn forces him to investigate what brought them to the hospital in the first place - a complicated task when it comes to his oldest patient, who has been there for decades longer than him and for whom he feels a very particular liking.

For much of the novel, it is Roseanne's heart-breaking account of her life that dominates and drives these pages. Born in Sligo to a Protestant family, she paints a vivid picture of the love of her life, her father, and their early years together. A motorcyclist, a singer, a reader, the cleanest man in Ireland, her father suffers, according to Roseanne, a Job-like series of disasters. He loses his job as a gravedigger on account of an incident during the civil war when three young men beg him to bury their dead comrade. He becomes a rat-catcher, earning less and working harder, but here too tragedy follows him. He disposes of the rats by burning them, and one evening a burning rat escapes and climbs into an orphanage. One hundred and twenty-three girls are killed in the resulting fire. Already a marginal figure in the town, he dares not speak up at the inquest. On top of all these difficulties, his wife becomes increasingly reclusive, and there is never any food in the house. Coming home early one evening, he discovers the secret of their poverty. She has bought an expensive clock, and the housekeeping money is going to pay off the loan. Confronted with her purchase she hurls the clock to the floor. "It was soon after this, so soon," Roseanne writes, "that I have to report, my father was found dead."

Left alone to take care of her mother, Roseanne's life becomes increasingly complicated. The local priest urges her to get married as soon as possible; both her religion and her looks, he explains, put her at risk. But Roseanne ignores him and goes to waitress at Café Cairo where, inevitably, she meets a man. Barry recounts all this in prose of often startling beauty. Just as he describes people stopping in the street to look at Roseanne, so I often found myself stopping to look at the sentences he gave her, wanting to pause and copy them down.

Braided in with Roseanne's narrative is what Dr. Grene calls his "Commonplace Book." His prose is less lustrous than Roseanne's and, in addition, he has the hard job of telling a less dramatic story. I sometimes turned his pages a little more quickly in my eagerness to get back to her. Which is not to say that his narrative doesn't have wonderful moments. Describing his estranged wife's nightly rituals he writes, "I heard her making that awful stuff she drinks at night before she goes to sleep. Complan. A nightmare drink if ever there was one, that tastes of death." As his story unfolds we gradually discover that Roseanne's history, with all its tragedy, may not be quite what it seems. Best of all, in the final part of the book, Dr. Grene turns out to have his own story, which intersects with Roseanne's in a satisfying manner.

I should confess that I occasionally felt like a less than ideal reader for "The Secret Scripture." Several of the plot turns involve two aspects of 20th century Irish history with which I am less familiar than I would wish: the vexed relations between Catholics and Protestants, and the power of the priests. The nature of Barry's first-person narratives, and the uncertainty he is so purposefully trying to create, sometimes left me a little confused. But, for the most part, that only gave me more in common with his characters, and, when I reached the last page, I did feel that I had shared a profound experience with each of them.

Margot Livesey teaches at Emerson College. Her new novel, "The House on Fortune Street," was published last month.

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