The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

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I knew very little about The Secret Scripture when I started reading it, apart from the fact that it was on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize and it was about an old woman in a mental hospital in Ireland, secretly writing her life story. I’d not long finished  The Gravedigger’s Daughter by Joyce Carol Oates and was surprised to find that I was reading yet another tragic tale about a gravedigger’s daughter. The opening sentences set the tone:

The world begins anew with every birth, my father used to say. He forgot to say, with every death it ends. Or he did not think he needed to. Because for a goodly part of his life he worked in a graveyard.

However, Roseanne, now about 100 years old, is the daughter of a very different gravedigger, one who was happy in his work and apparently well-liked. But his happiness didn’t last as many disasters assailed him which inevitably also affected Roseanne. As she later recalls her father

was let go from the cemetery, a living man exiled from the dead.

That was a little murder, also.

… Working in the graveyard, under the patronage as it were of Fr Gaunt, was in some manner to him his life perfected, made good. In some manner, made as a prayer back to his own father. It was the way he had learned to live, in Ireland, the accidental place he loved.

And to lose the job was to lose in some extraordinary fashion himself.

At the beginning of the book the hospital is due to close and at the same time as she is writing her own account of her life, Dr Grene is assessing whether she could cope with living on her own. He delves into her past trying to find the reason she was admitted and as the “facts” of her life emerge there are obvious discrepancies between her own account and the hospital records. It’s a story of Roseanne’s struggle to survive set against the background of religious conflict and political unrest in Ireland.

I was thoroughly gripped and moved by this novel; by the plot, the characters and the writing. Dr Grene, whose wife dies during the course of the book, is haunted by the failure of his marriage and overcome with grief:

I had woken in the night with an appalling sense of shame and disquiet. If I could itemise the attributes of my grief, and print them in a journal, I might do the world a general service. I suspect it is hard to remember grief, and it is certainly invisible. But is is a wailing of the soul nonetheless and I must never underestimate its acidic force in others.

One aspect of this novel particularly appealed to me – the nature of memory and its function in our lives. Roseanne looking back over her life begins to wonder just what was real and what was fantasy, comparing memory to a box or lumber room where

the contents have become jumbled about, maybe not only from neglect but also from too much haphazard searching in them, and things to boot thrown in that don’t belong there.

As she sees it,

… time passing is just a trick, a convenience. Everything is always there, still unfolding, still happening. The past, present, and the future, in the noggin eternally, like brushes, combs and ribbons in a handbag.

I’ve read some criticism that the ending is disappointing and contrived and although I could see how events were going to unfold I have no complaints. It was satisfying and it worked for me.

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