This is why I read.
Every now and then, and often enough to keep me addicted, I come across a treasure that I want to hold to my breast and weep over. The type of book I can’t put down but at the same time, want to read in small bites so it can last forever. A story filled with the kind of flawed and compassionate humanity that reconciles me to the human condition.
Sebastian Barry’s ‘The Secret Scripture’ (2008) was another word of mouth recommendation – the best way to come at a book. It won the Costa Book Award, which Barry was also awarded for his latest novel.
In ‘The Secret Scripture,’ hundred year old (or thereabouts) Roseanne is in the top-floor room of an asylum which is about to close down. Her psychiatrist, Dr Grene, is deep in grief for his wife.
‘There are pits of grief obviously that only the grieving know. It is a voyage to the centre of the earth, a huge heavy machine boring down into the crust of the earth. And a little man growing wild at the controls. Terrified, terrified and no turning back (p. 172).
Each is scribbling away at their scriptures or confessions – writing out their lives, careful around the borders of memory and imagination and madness. The story proceeds as first person accounts, in Roseanne and Dr Grene’s individual, compelling voices.
Set against the backdrop of the Irish civil war and its aftermath, revealing the power of the Catholic priests, and highlighting the position of vulnerable women, the novel is tragedy from beginning to end. It would be easy to label some events – and characters – evil. Yet an understanding is arrived at, if dearly bought.
‘The world is not full of betrayers, it is full of people with decent motives and a full desire to do right by those who know them and love them… We like to characterise humanity as savage, lustful, and basic, but that is to make strangers of everyone. We are not wolves, but lambs astonished at the margins of the fields by sunlight and summer’ (p. 186).
I was so beguiled by the beautiful writing and the deft storytelling to accept this end. Only at a distance from the story, do I wonder if anger might have been a better response (to events I do not want to reveal: spoilers in the modern parlance). Perhaps anger is the force that brings change. And the world needed, and needs, changing.
The power of Barry’s storytelling overcame every qualm as I read. It feels uniquely Irish. My antecedents are from Co. Cork but alas our Irish storytelling gene has been well and truly diluted by this stage.
And alas, alas, as I was looking for a link for this blog I noticed there has recently been a movie adaption of ‘The Secret Scripture.’ The meagre number of stars assigned has stopped me even opening any reviews.
Another example of read the book and avoid the cinema?
The magnificent image illustrates exactly my relationship to books.