Friday, March 16, 2012

Book Club Day! The Secret Scripture

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

Review by Shannon Buck
for Rolling Around in My Head
Next Book: Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens

-              All notes refer to the Penguin 2009 paperback edition (ISBN 978-0-14-311569-4)

Note from Shannon: 

SPOILER ALERT: if you haven't read the book but think you might want to, don't read the review. I give away pretty much everything in the plot!


For history as far as I can see is not the arrangement of what happens, in sequence and in truth, but a fabulous arrangement of surmises and guesses held up as a banner against the assault of withering truth. 

These seem not my thoughts at all, but maybe are borrowed out of old readings…But they feel as if they are mine.

-Roseanne McNulty, From Sebastian Barry’s “The Secret Scripture”

Where can I begin to describe this book? Should I talk about the magnificence and humility of the narrator? Should I tell you about the threads of plot, closely coiled on the woolen blanket of this story? Should I describe how the human experience flows through this book, a heavy and seductive stream of deceptive memory and loss?

The Secret Scripture is one of the most powerful books I have ever read. Its power is in its subtlety – in the questions that remain after you have read the final page. The narration is in two parts: one is written, in secret, by an old woman living out the last of her days in a decayed institution as archaic as she. Roseanne has been there so long that she is not sure when she arrived. Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital has been her home, her sanctuary, and her prison for so many years that she has become one with it, and cannot leave although the Hospital is shortly to be closed, and the more able of its residents released into the ‘community’.

The man responsible for evaluating the residents, one by one, as to their fitness for life ‘outside’, is Dr. Grene who, as the alternate narrator, reveals his own tragedies to the reader as Roseanne reveals hers.

Roseanne’s story, written on a collection of unwanted scrap paper with a ball-point pen given to her by Dr. Grene, is written as a way to leave something of herself alive; a final task to complete before she can go to her rest with joy. It unfolds slowly, beginning with her father, Joe. In fact, Roseanne’s entire story is compassed about by this man, who we learn to see in a certain way based on what she tells us.

If this story has a hero, Joe Clear is that hero. He is a fountain of joy, we learn, a hale and honest man with a rich singing voice and a generosity of spirit that seems to envelop and exalt Roseanne, his only child. He is the kind of man that you want to know – you want to talk to him and learn from him, listen to his tall tales and sit at his feet, smiling up at him.

And if the story has a villain, Father Gaunt is it.

A small, precise, preternaturally clean Catholic priest, the aptly named Father Gaunt is the symbol of all that is unfeeling, chilly, clinical, methodical, and sinister. He is, in one way or another, directly or indirectly, the author of all the misfortunes that befall both Joe Clear and Roseanne herself (though Roseanne repeatedly denies this, especially early in the book). He is, in fact, the man responsible for her long internment – or one could say interment – at Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital, by way of the “Sligo Lunatic Asylum”.

Through all of Roseanne’s reminiscences about her past, Father Gaunt consistently recurs as a malevolent presence. He manipulates her father into poverty and her mother into prostitution, manipulates Roseanne herself into divorce and disgrace, and then, eventually, tidies her away into the institution and, one gathers, metaphorically dusts his hands off and walks away.

The real tragedy of the story, though, lies in the fact of Roseanne’s bond with the hospital. She is so deeply ingrained in the place that she is, by her own testament and according to the assessment of the doctor, unable to leave. Not able to disconnect from it.

One of the many themes of the book is that of immuring, or walling away. The author repeatedly uses images that conjure towers, tombs, mausoleums…smooth stone edifices built to restrain.

“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.”

“In the pyramids”? In the tombs of great kings? There’s a burial here, but there is also an exaltation – a transformation. 

But if that is how Roseanne describes herself, there is also, later, a story of a man, locked into a basement by his wife and starved to death.

There is a story of girls, many young girls, kept unloved in an orphanage and then, pitied too late, dying in flames.

There is a story of babies, “surplus” babies as Roseanne calls them, laid on beds and left to die in a room with holes in the walls, the icy rain coming through holes in the ceiling.

There are nuns, who Roseanne describes as “savagery and modesty mixed”, in a convent.

Tidying people away.

But as easy as it would be to portray the hospital as a terrible, sinister place, the author does not always do so. Dr Grene, the administrator, is a sympathetic character – a man with true compassion and, it seems, a true vocation. He sees himself as a caretaker. (I won’t use the newer word, ‘caregiver’, because it feels wrong here.) In his own words: “I have a really stupid habit of feeling fatherly towards my patients, even motherly.” Then he lectures himself, “I must…resist compassion at every turn, because compassion is my weakness.”

So the doctor seems to be a good man. But he has cheated on his wife, has colluded in the imprisonment of “well” humans, and has spent his entire career working within a system he knows to be diseased and self-serving. Then, is the doctor a bad man?

Is the hospital a good place for Roseanne, or a bad place?

This question is at the core of the story, and at the core of its tragedy. Throughout the novel there are scenes of institutions, hospitals, prisons – and scenes of escape from those prisons; mostly escape by death. The marginalized and unwanted people of society, the ones with no net of loving family to catch them, have been put neatly into their little boxes where they won’t be a bother to anyone.

And yet, Roseanne is happy here.

And yet, Roseanne dreads freedom.

What is the greater cruelty: to take an old woman from her fifty years’ home, to force her into a ‘community’ where she will be, just as she was all those years ago, uncared for, unloved, and unwanted? At best, an object of pity? Or to leave her there in the place – the prison – where she is happy but which she knows is not home, to count out the last of her days behind walls that keep her in, where she considers herself to be safe?

Dr Grene speaks to Roseanne about leaving.

“God knows…no one could be happy here.”
“I am happy,” I said.
“…You might consider this place your home.”
“Well. You as well as any other person have the right to be free if you are suitable for, for freedom. I suppose even at one hundred years of age you might wish to – to walk about the place and paddle in the sea in the summer, and smell the roses – “
I did not intent to cry out, but as you will see these small actions, associated in most people’s minds with the ease and happiness of life, are to me still knives in my heart to think of.

Does Roseanne want to leave the hospital? She says, herself, that she wants it but dreads it.

But can the reader trust what Roseanne says? Can we trust what she remembers, and can we trust her stories, that, to quote Roseanne herself, she tells with “perfect force mainly because she believes every word of them”?

The Secret Scripture will echo in my head and in my heart for a long, long time. Each word of this book had an exquisite delicacy that compelled me forward through every drop of beauty and slice of tragedy in the story…the language is both simple and rich, the characters full-throated and living. It’s one of the loveliest works I’ve ever read.

The Secret Scripture Study Guide for extra credit! (Spoiler alert.)

1.            Water is a constant presence throughout the book. What do you think water represents?

2.            One of the main themes is forgetting – both deliberate and otherwise. Roseanne alters the truth of her past, yet the title of the book is “Scripture”. If you had to write a new title for this book, what would it be?

3.            Many people in the book are trapped by walls: some escape. How can we understand Roseanne’s father’s “Indian Angel” story in the context of Joe Clear himself? In the context of Roseanne? (p. 10)

4.            There is a lot of loss in this book – it is a major, recurrent theme. Roseanne tells us that her mother is lost, “as a shilling on the floor”, because she never told her stories (pp 8, 11). Do you agree with Roseanne that, if no one knows your story, you are therefore Lost? What does this mean for people who cannot communicate? What does it mean for the past “patients” of institutions, who have perished immured behind their walls? Are they lost? Does a person’s experience, lived but untold, count? What if we don’t want to tell our stories?

5.            What do you think Roseanne would have thought of Doctor Grene if she had known he was her lost son?

6.            Dr. Grene likens the inmates of Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital to the building itself, but he likens the staff to the “bats and rats” (p 15). Why?

7.            What did Roseanne’s mother mean when she said “All things may fall at the same rate,…but it’s the rare thing rises”? (p 19)

8.            Why is Roseanne so determined not to vilify Father Gaunt, when he IS the author of her tragedy?

9.            What do you think of the author’s use of a Catholic priest as a villain? Do you think this is fair? Is it historically accurate? Is it probable? Is it a copout?

10.          Dr. Grene writes that he and his estranged wife Bet make love on the downstairs carpet, on her silent instigation, the night before her death (p 90). Do you think this really happened? The very next time Roseanne sees him, he has shaved (p 97). What is the significance of this, coming where it does in the story?

11.          What is the significance of Bet’s haunting of Dr. Grene? (i.e., p 113-114, 150, 166) Do you think he is imagining it?

12.          What do you think about the treatment of John Kane in the novel? How does Roseanne regard him? How does the author regard him? Is he unfairly depicted?

13.          Sexual violence runs as an undercurrent through the novel. It is rarely mentioned explicitly, but it is hinted at in significant places of the book. And Roseanne adapts her memories, possibly, and her narrative, certainly, to avoid the subject entirely. She was attacked in the hospital where she was first committed, by Brady. Considering both her stories of her childhood, and her adaptable memory, do you think this was the first time? (See pp 37, 50, 105, 152, 279)

14.          What is the significance of the scene where the German Luftwaffe, returning from the bombing of Belfast, flies directly over Roseanne? (p 253)

15.          And, lastly……at the end of the book Dr. Grene is trying to pick his moment to tell Roseanne that he is her lost child. Do you think that he ever does?


Janet said...

Wonderful review! I reluctantly picked this book up so that I could participate in this book club. The story captivated me and I was impressed that the author had the courage to discuss institutionalization with some depth. I found it interesting that you quoted one of the most important moments in the book. She says it is not "home" but she is still frightened to leave it. Homeless in a home is a frightening existance. I lived in a hospital for a few years and I found it much easier than you might imagine to fold my life up and tuck it in a small space. Leaving was supposed to be a day of happiness but it terrifed me. Though I have unfolded my life, I suspect that the creases will always remain. This book took me on a painful journey but one that I'm glad I had occasion to take.

Anonymous said...

perfect review for the day be fore Saint Patricks. All Barry's books are worth reading. Loved the book and loved the review.

TMc said...

Thanks Shannon - Awesome review. I did not read the book and appreciate the summary. I might yet be drawn to read it. Your summary reminds me of many people in group homes who may or may not be happy with their life but are too uncertain at life on the other side of the walls.

Colleen said...

I really enjoyed this book. One of the main points for me was this - is Roseanne's story what really happened (are any of our stories what really happened?). I think it is not.

Shannon I can't agree with your picture of Joe. To his family he may have been a wonderful man, but it seems he was in Father Gaunt's account not so innocent and involved in the troubles on the British side. That seems to be a theme of this book - lots of people have double lives/secret stories (thus the title?).

I also wondered that Roseanne did not end up in a Magdalene laundry. Father Gaunt is certainly one villain and he would certainly have had the power to send her to a Magdalene laundry which would make life in the lunatic asylum look relatively idyllic.

Another theme that stood out to me was the misogyny, which I believe is accurate about Ireland at this time. There is an absolute horror of female sexuality.

And then there is the presence of John Kane - so even though Roseanne seems to be abandoned she is not completely and utterly alone though even she does not know of his devotion to her.

Thanks Dave for a good thought provoking read!

Maggie said...

I read the book months ago. Your review brings lots of it back, but the part that has stuck with me from the beginning is Roseanne's powerlessness as a beautiful woman whose local priest saw her existence as a 'problem' in his parish.

Especially in the current climate of political @#$ going on in the US around male legislators making invasive rules about women's bodies ...

As chilling as The Handmaid's Tale.

The whole topic of institutionalization is enormous. My parents (in the 1950s) spoke of orphanages and mental institutions (when they mentioned them at all) as places where people got help for problems that were too big for their families to take care of. They also spoke of jails as 'places where we put bad people so they can't hurt anybody'.

By the 1970s I had learned that jails are where people in power put people they don't like ... who may or may not have done something criminal, and whose 'crimes' may or may not have actually been bad. Then I discovered that genuinely bad acts often go completely unpunished because the perpetrator wears a nice suit and polished cufflinks.

Nowadays we are learning that most institutions have too much in common with jails.

When will we learn to treat each other decently?

(I'm gibbering. Enough already).

Thanks for this book club day.

Shan said...

Colleen, good point about Joe. Really, the heroism was all in Roseanne's revisionist self-portrait...her habit of making over the men in her life to be virtuous.

The misogyny theme was huge. You have to remember, too, that at no point has she hasn't told the whole story...she displaces memories, omits, fabricates, glosses over. Is she as 'innocent' as we assume? Is Fr Gaunt possibly right about her activities in the iron hut? (My personal feeling is, there's more going on that we know about, but I don't want to think he's right about her!)

Janet, TMc, I had a hard time with the institutionalisation theme. I felt like I didn't have any context to understand it in a real way...which I suppose is why we read books - to gain a perspective our experience hasn't given us. At the end of the book, I really didn't know what Dr. Grene should do for Roseanne.

I'm Not My Disease said...

Thanks for supporting DIS ablity blog carnival # 82 which I hope to post over this weekend

Belinda said...

I knew that I wouldn't have time to read the book so I ordered the audio version which was incredibly beautiful to listen to, read by Wanda McCaddon who transformed into each character so amazingly well!

I felt a terrible dread throughout, seeing that no good could come of the choices that were being made by the characters, especially Roseanne, but being powerless to intervene! It was a book that made me want to read Sebastian Barry's other books.

I loved Roseanne's relish of her blue Biro and precious pieces of paper.

Anonymous said...

This book hurt to read. That made me angry. This book is healing to read. That makes the anger worthwhile.

Myrrien said...

I wasnt sure I wanted to finish reading the book - it made me so angry but it seemed to suck me right in. I wanted to know what happened, I got to a point where I cared about the story.

I think the point about how Roseanne rewrote how she saw men in the story was very interesting, they had a clear role in her life, heros, villains all larger than life and women were shadows in comparison.

But it was the sacrifice of truth that hit me through the story, even Dr Greene continued this at the end, he didn't tell John Kane about his cancer coming back, he couldn't tell his mother who he was. For me that if the history of institutions, to rob individuals of their story and their past.

A haunting read.

Anonymous said...

Hello, I really liked your campaign about the r-word so I was curious to know how do you feel about the new 21 Jump Street movie using Autistic in an offensive way with almost the same meaning of the r-word?

It looks like it's getting common to call people autistic to offend them now.

antony varghese said...

Dave excellent review of the book.Thank you for your information about this book,its really interesting and very much useful for me am really looking forward to read this book. I also want to follow The Secret Scripture Study Guide for extra credit, which you have mentioned in the log.

Suelle said...

Well, here is my very late review of the book! It was very good.