Sunday, December 28, 2008

Humane letters ...

Last night, I finished reading (on my Kindle) Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture. It was shortlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize, but lost out to Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger.
I haven't read Adiga's book - though I have seen a good deal of grousing about it - but it is hard to imagine that it is better than Barry's, which is extraordinary.
The first thing that needs to be remarked upon is the sheer beauty of the prose. This does not come of Barry's choosing fancy words or going out of his way for striking imagery. It comes of his uncanny sense of words as sounds. His sentences are melodies:
The light of the candles pierced everywhere, into the lines of my father's face as he sat beside me, into the stones of the church, into the voice of the minister as he spoke his words in that mysterious and stirring English of the bible, in through my own breastbone, right into my young heart, so that I wanted to cry out, but cry out what I could not say.
Each of Barry's characters has a distinctive voice and a separate melodic line, though The Secret Scripture is largely antiphonal, a back and forth between the voices of Roseanne McNulty, a 100-year-old inmate of Roscommon mental hospital, and the psychiatrist who runs the hospital, Dr. William Grene. Chapters alternate between the memoir Roseanne is secretly writing and Dr. Grene's commonplace book. Roscommon is going to be closed and Dr. Grene has to determine who among the patients can be returned to society. In particular he wants to know if any have been wrongly confined there.
So Dr. Grene - who is Irish but was raised in England by adoptive parents - visits Roseanne regularly now, to see what she can tell him of her life before she came to Roscommon. He also does some independent investigating as well.
Dr. Grene is a melancoly man. A single impetuous fling destroyed his marriage, but he terribly misses his late wife. There is a heartbreaking scene where he lies on her bed and imagines being her and afterward gathers her books about roses and takes them with him to read in his bedroom:
... that Bet needed and wanted to know all these things about roses suddenly filled me with happiness, and pride. And curiously enough, this feeling didn't give way to regret and guilt. No, it opened room upon room, rose upon rose, to further happiness. That was not only the best day I have had since she died, but one of the best days of my life. It was as if she had dipped something of her essence down from heaven and helped me. I was so bloody grateful to her.

Roseanne's story is inextricably mixed up with Ireland's often terrible history. Barry's achievement has, happily, nothing to do with placing his characters in their historical context, and everything to do with restoring to history its human context. And his portrayal of that context is unfailingly humane. Take Father Gaunt, the priest who, as Roseanne tells us, "loomed so large in my own story, if a small man can be said to loom large." Dr. Grene concludes that Father Gaunt "was obviously sane to such a degree it makes sanity almost undesirable." Those characterizations frame a man who, like the Irish branch of the Church he served, usually managed fidelity to the Bark of Peter by tossing love overboard. Nevertheless, while Father Gaunt may be the least attractive figure in Barry's novel, he is never merely a villain.
Most readers, I suspect, will figure things out just before Dr. Grene does, which is exactly when they should. The Secret Scripture is a wonderful book - a magical one, really - a long, sad song about how very much that fragile thing called love can endure.

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