Some years ago at the Ubud Readers and Writers Festival I was intrigued and entertained by a British writer called Jill Dawson who had the audience at her session in the palm of her hand, so I checked out one of her volumes in the festival bookshop. I place a lot of importance and insight into a book by its first page. It wasn’t long, still on page one, that I heard a faint gasp from my own mouth and a thunk as I put the book back immediately. Both actions were involuntary. I was alarmed; not by the content but by my reaction to the content: she was writing in the first person as a man. I was not aware that I held this prejudice. Since then I have tried several times to write as a woman; I mean, in a first person (and third person) female voice with mixed success. So, when it was clear that Barry’s first person narrator was a woman I did not act as before but thought it was time I faced my prejudice, although weakened since by my own efforts, and continued reading.
The narrative is, in fact, in two voices: one the old woman, Roseanne Clear, the dominant voice, and the other, Dr Grene, the psychiatrist who tends to her at the Roscommon mental hospital, St Malarky’s, where Roseanne has been living for as long as anyone can remember. Roseanne Clear is very old, maybe even a hundred.
I am only a thing left over, a remnant woman, and I do not even look like a human being no more, but a scraggy stretch of skin and bone in a bleak skirt and blouse, and a canvas jacket, and 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.
She writes out her life on “unwanted paper” and stashes it under a loose floorboard; not unusual as the building is falling apart. Barry gives her language that is poetic, articulate, melancholy, and wise but seemingly uneducated at times: “no more”, although this could be her Irish-ness peeking through. Yet she is in a mental hospital. This is usually a theatrical device, a character being one thing to the other characters, and someone else to the audience; a form of dramatic irony. This is reinforced by conversations she has with Dr Grene where she gives simple answers or sometimes no answer at all, while telling the reader her reasons.
Her aim is to try and remember why she is where she is and whether memory, about a husband, then a non-husband, abandonment, expulsion, and a child, has any relation to reality. Is memory trustworthy?
Her story is one of Ireland: beginning with political unrest and genteel poverty as the daughter of a Presbyterian gravedigger in Sligo, western Ireland in the 1940s. Almost half of the book is devoted to her memory of her childhood with a father she adored, and you will too – even when be is reduced to work as a rat-catcher – but with a mother who is as distant and silent as a housemaid, which she resembles. Dr Grene has a similar wife, blank, distracted, lonely and you wonder at times whose memory is the more reliable.
The themes here are literary-Irish through and through: the slap-dash care, easy-bitterness, and bloody-mindedness of family; the down-right intractability of a mean-spirited Church hiding behind the skirts of a dour and silent god; secrets of paternity; the hyper-critical branding based on any sexuality that isn’t church-condoned, but done in the dark, and never mentioned; and the dis-empowerment, subordination, and denigration of women. It’s a very long way from the Ireland of today with its diminished religiosity, liberalism, and political leadership by an openly gay young man whose paternity is from India. However, as long as there are Irish writers who were damaged, but survived, their Irish past, as holocaust survivors survived theirs, there will be books like this.
The writing is luscious, and sometimes you need to re-read aloud a line, a paragraph, just to wallow in the words, to delight in the feel of them in your mouth; and since we read for pleasure – like we listen to music – there’s no need to engage the memory, this is a book for reading again.
The Secret Scripture was short-listed for the Man-Booker, won the Jame Tait Black Memorial Prize, and the Costa Award in 2008; which Barry won again in 2016 for Days Without End.
You can find the book in various formats, including audio book and audio CD, here.
The film version, directed and co-written by Jim Sheridan with Johnny Ferguson, was made in 2016 starring Rooney Mara (the love interest to Cate Blanchett’s title-character in Carol, from 2015) as young Rose, Vanessa Redgrave as old Rose, and Eric Bana as Dr Grene; it was released in the USA in October. It will be in cinemas in Australia from December 7, 2017.