Director’s notebook August 2008
One of my favorite types of novels is the kind that tells a story from multiple viewpoints. This might be through letters, diaries, or narratives from different characters. The Victorian novelist Wilkie Collins was especially adept at this type of novel: his novels The Woman In White and The Moonstone are classics of the multiple viewpoint novel.
Recently I read another novel that makes wonderful use of multiple viewpoint: The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry. In this novel Barry lets the story slowly and painstakingly uncoil, through the memories and reflections, joys and sorrows of two people: Roseanne (nee Clear) McNulty, a one hundred year old woman who has been an inmate in a mental institution for decades, and Dr. Grene the aging psychiatrist who has supervised her treatment for many of those years.
Roseanne has kept a secret journal hidden under the floorboards of her dreary room for most of the years of her confinement, a kind of safety net for keeping her sanity and her identity from eroding away entirely. Dr. Grene uses his notebook to ponder his deteriorating relationship with his wife and at times to contemplate Roseanne and speculate on her long and arduous life.
As the book opens, the Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital is about to be demolished, and the doctors are told to release as many inmates as possible into society where they can be “mainstreamed”. Understandably, Dr. Grene is appalled to think that someone as old and frail as Roseanne, who has been removed from society most of her adult life, should be expected to fend for herself in the world once again. He attempts to learn as much as he can about her past, both by asking her directly and by searching out old, lost records regarding her initial commitment to a Sligo asylum. What he uncovers fills him with horror and pity for the young woman who was once Roseanne Clear, the most beautiful woman in Sligo.
Roseanne’s story is set against the time of civil war and violence in Ireland around the time of World War I, known by the Irish simply as “The Troubles”. Roseanne and her father were both caught up in The Troubles, and both paid severely for offenses they never committed, or merely for being, quite literally, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Dr. Grene tries to understand how things could have gone so irrevocably astray in Roseanne’s life, while at the same time trying to understand the failures of his own seemingly sterile existence. In particular he is moved to compassion at the thought of Roseanne’s dead child whom she lost just before she was forcibly committed to the asylum in Sligo.
The reign of the Catholic church over the lives of Irish men and women was nearly absolute throughout the period of Roseanne’s youth. Both she and her father suffered from the church’s unchecked power. The mystery of Roseanne’s incarceration is directly linked to the Catholic priest who believed her to be debased and sinful; could the fate of her child also be linked to the long arm of the Church?
The Secret Scripture is full of secrets, and there is a surprise at the end that I, for one, certainly did not see coming! But you will find no “spoiler” here; read this powerful novel and discover the stunning secret for yourself.
Follow this link to check out The Secret Scripture: