The Secret Scripture

Any delving into the relationship between patients and their doctors, patients and other patients, physicians and colleagues, is fertile soil for fiction authors. Countless stories spring to mind, chief among them as I write is Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood’s 1996 novel that pits the wits of prisoner-patient Grace Marks against those of her equally clever and devious psychiatrist. In that novel, Atwood playfully and with her customary dark humor suggests that an inversion of the relationship between healer and client is always a near and even a dear possibility. Much of what is special about Alias Grace are the subtle and not subtle enough machinations that Dr Simon Jordan and Grace wreak upon one another in efforts to learn the truth about one another while fuzzying truths from themselves. Next to mind is Asylum, Patrick McGrath’s 1997 novel where the practice of psychiatry is carried to levels that can only be deemed eccentric.

The Secret Scripture, then, with its cover of a woman sporting angel wings and inside cover blurb which hints at doctor and patient coming to understand one another, surprised me. I was fully prepared for all the gamesmanship that could be thrown a reader’s way, short of, say, Nabokov. I was ready for another Alias Grace, or something darkly akin to Asylum. Instead, Sebastian Barry uses a delicate, direct, and almost formal style to relate what is at times a fairly brutal tale, the life of Roseanne Clear and that story’s reception in the hands of her psychiatrist.

Roseanne, from her vantage point as centenarian and long-term resident of the Roscommon Hospital, feels the need to write, a life’s reckoning that Barry places squarely in the hands of a character who seems fully competent to do so. Alternately, Roseanne’s long time psychiatrist, Dr. William Grene, embarks upon a full psychological assessment of his oldest patient, after decades of benign neglect and for the purpose of determining her suitability for release when the old Roscommon facility is razed and a new one built. This accounting leads to a personal assessment, an unconscious attempt at ”Physician, heal thyself”. Dr Grene, in counterpoint to Asylum‘s Dr Peter Cleave or Atwood’s Dr Jordan, gives voice to a sense of purpose and strength found in a noble practitioner.

But as time goes on, as I am slowly like everyone else worn out, finding a tatter here and a tear there in the cloth of myself, I need this place more and more. The trust of those in dark need is forgiving work. Maybe I should be more frustrated by the obvious cul-de-sac nature of psychiatry, the horrible depreciation in the states of those that linger here, the impossibility of it all. But God help me, I am not. In a few years I will reach retirement age, and what then? I will be like a sparrow without a garden.

Roseanne’s story recounts her girlhood, life as a physically beautiful child whose loving relationship with her father stretches the cloth of their poverty to find extra fabric for play and the comfort of one another. As a young adult, dark shapes from her father’s past and pressures crowding Roseanne’s present combine to strain her life to a point where she could be broken.

I must admit there are ‘memories’ in my head that are curious even to me. I would not like to have to say this to Dr Grene. Memory, I must suppose, if it is neglected becomes like a box room, or a lumber room in an old house, the contents jumbled about, maybe not only from neglect but also from too much haphazard searching in them, and things to boot thrown in that don’t belong there. I certainly suspect — well, I don’t know what I certainly suspect. It makes me a little dizzy to contemplate the possibility that everything I remember may not be — may not be real, I suppose. There was so much turmoil at that time that — that what? I took refuge in other impossible histories, in dreams, in fantasies? I don’t know.

What makes this novel remarkable is the deft placement of one elegant word upon another, until 300 pages of history, mystery and revelation are swiftly ensconced in the reader without a sense that they have pummeled their way in. Roseanne is a woman from another era, a time when people wrote in careful longhand and chose words simply for their efficacy and proper placement. I’ve always loved elegant, careful narrative such as this that rewards, not in tricksiness, but in steady story building that brings to mind a brickmason putting a solid wall into place, complete with layers between and betwixt where one is free to search for connections, themes, and old fashioned insight.

All of those things are twigs in the mortar of The Secret Scripture. The elements of family strife, Irish political and religious history, sparrows and gardens, hammers, feathers, and, above all, the search for identity and understanding. I’m happy to have found and read at least one Booker nominee before the prize is announced. If the fields of UK literary competitions are crowded with offerings such as this, I can only look that way enviously and look forward to their westward release dates.

My Mother’s House and Sido – Colette

What glory can there be in snapping green beans? A few weeks ago, I was given a large bag along with the inherent task of discovering just that. The beans were dirty, and more numerous than I hoped. They also had some spots that would need pruning before the whole bunch could be washed and prepared on the stove. Thinking about a plate fully laden with freshly cooked and delicately seasoned green beans, brimming with potassium and shell outs, impelled me to begin the task, made longer by the hems and haws of getting started.

That afternoon I wondered about the lack of celebration for the mundane. It seems we all want to kick ass in a specialty of one sort or another. We want to be stellar, even singular, at something good and praiseworthy. Then, we all want our plate of steaming vegetables for dinner. Perfectly prepared, but perhaps by other hands. Whose are the hands who mend, cook, and call the children? And how can they possibly be represented in such a way that captures the wonderment of the domestic life’s immediacy, its experiential quality, its very pulse?

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, in 1922 and 1929 respectively, published an homage to her mother’s haute housewifery as My Mother’s House and Sido, two very impractical novels of recall. The first, My Mother’s House, is simply about the goings on in a French provincial village, Saint-Sauveur, in the years circling the advent of the twentieth century. In the midst of the village, the short, round figure of Sido towers over her garden and the worlds of her children. Colette writes winsomely of her mother’s lifelong care for creatures, children, and plants, tending them all with joyous solicitude that renders their growth and survival of utmost importance.

Have you ever heard tell of Pelisson’s spider that so passionately loved music? I for one am ready to believe it and also to add, as my slender contribution to the sum of human knowledge, the story of the spider that my mother kept — as my father expressed — on her ceiling, in that year that ushered in my sixteenth spring. A handsome garden spider she was, her belly like a clove of garlic emblazoned with an ornate cross. In the daytime she slept, or hunted in the web that she had spun across the bedroom ceiling. But during the night, towards three o’clock in the morning, at the moment when her chronic insomnia caused my mother to relight the lamp and open her bedside book, the great spider would also wake, and after a careful survey would lower herself from the ceiling by a thread, directly above the little oil lamp upon which a bowl of chocolate simmered through the night. Slowly she would descend, swinging limply to and fro like a big bead, and grasping the edge of the cup with all her eight legs, she would bend over head foremost and drink to satiety. Then she would draw herself ceiling-wards again, heavy with creamy chocolate, her ascent punctuated by the pauses and meditations imposed by an overloaded stomach, and would resume her post in the centre of her silken rigging.

It was that sort of household. The chapter titles themselves are peeks into the world of Colette’s mother. “Where are the Children?”, ”My Mother and the Books”, ”My Sister With the Long Hair”, ”My Mother and the Curé”, and ”My Mother and Morals”, to name a few. The language is sensual, and the 1953 translation of Una Vicenzo Troubridge and Enid McLeod brings to the English a sprightliness and playfulness that reminds me of Paris in gold light on a spring morning. Or, more to my turf, clothes whipping on the line in a stiff prairie breeze.

My mother smelled of laundered cretonne, of irons heated on the poplar-wood fire, of lemon-verbena leaves which she rolled between her palms or thrust into her pocket. At nightfall I used to imagine that she smelled of newly-watered lettuces, for the refreshing scent of them would follow her footsteps to the rippling sound of the rain from the watering-can, in a glory of spray and tillable dust.

Everything about Madame Colette is tillable in her daughter’s reminiscence, the groundedness and humor of a woman in harmony with her physical world, if not always perfectly attuned to the persons who accompany her, excepting one, Monsieur Colette. The Captain, Jules-Joseph Colette, was in thrall to Sido and the two shared a quiet passion portrayed simply and unforgettably by their daughter.

Only once, on a summer day, when my mother was removing the coffee-tray from the table, did I see my father, instead of exacting the familiar toll (a kiss), bend his greying head and bearded lips over my mother’s hand with a devotion so ardent and ageless that Sido, speechless and as crimson with confusion as I, turned away without a word. I was still a child and none too pure-minded, being exercised as one is at thirteen by all those matters concerning which ignorance is a burden and discovery humiliating. It did me good to behold, and every now and again to remember afresh, that perfect picture of love: the head of a man already old, bent in a kiss of complete self-surrender on a graceful, wrinkled little hand, worn with work.

When I thought about it, I decided that not too much can compete for glory with chocolate-drinking spiders and the fragrance of crushed verbena leaves in a dress pocket. There was no particular kicking of any particular part I needed to do that day. I picked up the bag of beans, not, as it were, for life, but for the long, sweet afternoon.