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.