Skilled and gentle storytelling

2008-10-29 00:00

SHORTLISTED for, although not winning, this year’s Booker Prize, The Secret Scripture is a delightful novel. Told in two voices — those of an elderly woman inmate of an old, crumbling mental hospital and the resident psychiatrist — it is a story that could only have come out of Irish history in the 20th century.

Roseanne McNulty is almost 100 years old. The records that led to her being incarcerated have long since vanished, and it is only the impending demolition of the hospital that stirs Dr Grene into trying to work out who can be, in the euphemistic phrase beloved by bureaucrats “returned to the community”. There will be fewer beds in the new state-of-the-art hospital, so the numbers must be made to fit. Not that Roseanne, at her age, is a contender, but she intrigues the doctor.

Roseanne keeps a journal of sorts, the story of her life, hidden under a loose floorboard. And, in parallel, Dr Grene manages to find some records and do some research of his own which he also commits to paper. His wife has just died, and looking into Roseanne’s past offers him something of an antidote to his grief and guilt.

Roseanne’s story is a tragic one. Burdened with beauty and with little guidance, as a young woman she runs up against Irish politics and a heavy-handed Catholic church. Her moments of happiness become fewer and fewer, and her life unravels into chaos — and ultimately is reduced to a crumbling room in the Roscommon Mental Hospital.

But Sebastian Barry is not telling a tale of unrelieved gloom. As he brings the strands of his story deftly together, often with humour, always with a deeply appealing gentleness — and superbly skilled and often poetic writing — the story comes to a conclusion that is perfect. Surprising maybe, but when you finish, you realise that it could not be bettered.

Margaret von Klemperer

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