The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

The Secret Scripture, by the award-winning writer Sebastian Barry, is a contemporary Anglo-Irish novel written in 2008, where personal stories are used as a means of destabilizing official historiography. The novel belongs to a collection of books called “The Sligo Novels,” written by the author, where Sligo County is portrayed as a microcosm united by the personal experiences of characters that appear or are mentioned in all of his texts. In this sense, The Secret Scripture is a text that not only can be read independently but as a part of a literary corpus that deals with the history of this particular location.

The Secret Scripture is articulated by two different, interspersed narrative plots presentedin the form of unofficial documents that deal with the story of ninety-nine-year-old Roseanne McNulty and her internment in the Roscommon Mental Hospital. Written in scavenged paperand hidden under a floorboard of a room, the first of these versions of the story is “Roseanne’s Testimony of Herself,” her own attempt at reconstructing the fractured story of her life and the different societal oppressive forces that contributed to her isolation during the upheavals following the Irish Independence. This account is full of memory inexactitudes and contradictions that emphasize the impossibility of a reliable account of past experiences and challenge the veracity of historiographic discourse since its very nature is described as “memory in decent sentences” (293) whose “syntactical means is treacherous and unreliable.” (293) The second document, titled “Dr Greene’s Commonplace Book,” is Roseanne’s psychiatrist’s investigation on her mental state and the reasons why she was incarcerated in the Sligo Lunatic Asylum and later on moved to Roscommon. This study on the patient is also contaminated by Dr Grene’s personal narration about the death of his wife and his grieving process. As such, the text also questions the infallibility of the psychiatric institution as represented by Dr Grene, since he seems unable to cope with his own mental instability and, after interviewing Roseanne multiple times, acknowledges that “the only person’s sanity in doubt. . . was my own.” (169) By overlapping both documents or plot sections, the novel tries to construct a different idea of historical narrative(s) in which personal stories, especially those of oppressed women such as Roseanne, are included in the official History of Ireland in order to sew together the missing threads of the “tapestry of Irish life” (183) that, as Dr Grene points out, would otherwise “fall apart” (183).

The text, however, constantly reminds readers of the impossibility of achieving a sense of absolute historical completeness or truth since the narrator attempts at rounding both personal and official narratives are hindered by a prejudiced written language and a fragile memory. Whereas Roseanne’s account of her own history is unreliable due to her aging mind and her traumatic experiences, Dr Green’s “objective” investigation is equally questionable; his only means to grasp a complete life story is written language, posing the question of whether it is even feasible for readers to believe any narration in the text. In this sense, Barry’s extremely artificial ending of the novel can be read as a declaration of his position towards Historiography and the official History of his country. This novel is a reminder that any act of writing is a necessary artifice that allows us to glimpse at a given truth but it is only through glimpsing at multiple views of that particular truth that we can (or may not) come to factual understanding.

Moreover, this idea is enhanced by the apparent objectivity that the novel tries to recreate by presenting two documents in the novel. The text gives the impression of having no identifiable omniscient narrator that could access the minds of the character and be in some degree of control over the plot. Although each of them, Dr Greene and Roseanne are accountable for their own narrations, there is a liminal space or an unidentified voice that puts together both documents and that recreates the so called objectivity in History textbooks where facts are presented as unbiased and, therefore, unchallenged to the reader. This, which would not be possible on a literary essay where there is an identifiable enunciating “I”, emphasizes the idea that both personal and official histories are equally artificial but necessary for the sake of some kind of truth.

Finally, as part of a literary corpus of four novels, The Secret Scripture is a novel whose ending may not be completely round due to its connection to other texts that deal with County Sligo. Barry’s interest in the history of the place, and his position regarding the nature of true accounts, are again foregrounded by his not allowing readers to access to a single vision of the events that occur in his microcosm. The Secret Scripture is a text that constantly invites readers to explore other narratives that are only hinted at, in the novel, through the mentioning of certain characters whose identities seem to be somewhat obscure but that are developed in other titles from the “Sligo Novels.”

Andrés Pineda

Works Cited

Barry, Sebastian. The Secret Scripture. New York: Penguin Books, 2008. Print.