Monday, June 27, 2011

The Secret Scripture, by Sebastian Barry

The good thing about blogs is that you don't really have to write an actual review of a book. So taking that liberty, I thought I'd write a little about what it was like to read Sebastian Barry's prizewinning novel, The Secret Scripture, in the context of reading it for a book group. Lately I've become a bit resistant to the whole book group angle. Well, actually, I was always pretty resistant. I'm not a fast reader, and I have a lot going on in my life most of the time, so reading things that someone else chose for me to read has never been all that appealing. But there is a lot to be gained, I've found, in reading something you never would have gotten to and then being able to get together with a group of people and discuss it. More than a literary discussion, though it can be that, it tends to bond you as a group over time, enough so that, though I would be quite happy never to read a book group pick, I can't really see not going to the group when I can. Hence my dilemma.

I missed the meeting where this book was chosen, and entered upon the project even more halfheartedly than usual. I had some other things to read ahead of it, so took my time and then found myself reading the book only in the brief moments of my breaks from work, or while waiting for the bus. As the fated Tuesday began to loom its ugly head, I realized that I hadn't really slotted enough time for it, so I had to choose whether to abandon the idea of completion or power on through. I had already reached about page 90 and hadn't really decided.

The Secret Scripture tells the tale of Roseanne McNulty, a hundred year old woman living in a mental institution somewhere not too far outside the Irish city of Roscommon. It is also the story of the psychiatrist Dr. Grene, who must oversee the evacuation of all the tenants of the asylum and decide who is fit to live in the outside world again. Somewhat improbably, he spends a lot of time trying to decide whether Roseanne would be up to that, when nothing about her age or circumstance would appear to indicate it. But Roseanne is a compassionate person, and Dr. Grene, going through some recent emotional hardship of  his own, is in need of some connection. Both characters keep journals of their encounter, although for different reasons.

Now I have to say that the beginning of this book left me unmoved. But the question, always, with book group reading is, would I have felt that way if I had picked it up on my own and read it at my leisure? In the current circumstance, I found it captivating enough to keep going, but I also felt a certain distance from it, wondering why we had to have the trick of the two narratives, and why we had to have this improbable 100 year old narrator, who never for one moment seems mad enough to be in an asylum. Even the quiet moments of insight left me irritated. It all seemed too familiar, and what didn't seem familiar felt contrived.

As well it should have, as it turns out.

I think it was somewhere around page 90 that a couple of scenes of such startling beauty and yes, perhaps horror appeared and I suddenly thought, well, I want to know what happens. I looked at my watch and made a calculation. Yes, I could finish the whole thing before the book group if I set aside everything else. And so I did.

A lot of people go to book groups without worrying too much about finishing the book. Our group is about as anarchic in spirit as they come and no one would ever look down upon you for not finishing. No, the requirement comes solely from me and it's not because I want to be the 'good one' in the group, it's that I really can hardly bear to have the ending of a story given away. Even if it's a book I don't care about that much. So I have more than once had these eleventh hour ordeals to go through. I don't work on Tuesdays so I do have the option of  doing an all out push at the end, and have taken that route more than once.

In this case, I did feel okay about making that decision. We ended up talking about the book more than we sometimes do, and I was able to side with a member who had loved the book and give evidence of waht we had liked about it. Some other members thought the story was a little too neat, but as I had been completely taken in, I didn't feel that way. And we all agreed that there were some absolutely breathtaking scenes.And one really scary one in a haunted house kind of way-- well, to me anyway.

But the curious result of reading the book in that way is that it has left not a trace in my emotional life. I loved it when I finished it, but I may have only loved my own sense of accomplishment. It turns out to be a bit like cramming for finals, which I also did in my day. You have mastery in the moment, but after the moment is over, much of it blows away.

Once again, this book fulfills the requirements for the Ireland Reading Challenge even though I should probably be getting on to other countries' literature...


  1. It was good that parts of it did grab you, but p 90 is a bit late to capture the attention of the reader.

    Well, who am I to speak? I can come up with a good beginning and end but tend to fall into the sagging-middle trap.

  2. Yes, I think I wouldn't have made it that far if it hadn't been for the book group obligation. On the other hand, no one else seemed to have much trouble getting into it, and I think the whole 'will I commit or not?' question made me set too high a bar for it.

    I will say that the sagging middle is not one of its problems.

  3. Not sure this one is for me - but I enjoyed reading your review. :) I linked your review on the Ireland Challenge page.

  4. I should add that it was nominated for several awards and won the Costa Book Award. So take everything I say with a large grain of salt.