Sebastian Barry was surprisingly cheerful while writing “The Secret Scripture,” the moving and tragic tale of a socially rejected beautiful young woman who has been trapped in an Irish mental institution up to her 100th birthday.
“Failure as a writer is irrelevant, because the actual doing of it is essentially joyful,” the 53-year-old writer, who lives in County Wicklow, told IrishCentral during a recent interview at the Web site’s offices.
“Hard to explain that with such a dark story, but in fact I was very happy writing that book.”
Barry hasn’t had to worry about failure with his latest novel, “The Secret Scripture.” The Irish novelist, playwright and poet’s book was shortlisted for the 2008 Booker Prize and was named the Costa Book of the Year, a prestigious award for the best novel by a writer based in Britain and Ireland.
Most recently, “The Secret Scripture” won two prizes at the Irish Book Awards in both categories in which it was nominated: Irish Novel of the Year and the RTÉ Radio 1's “The Tubridy Show” Listeners Choice Award.
“The Secret Scripture” tells the story of Roseanne McNulty, the most beautiful girl in Sligo, who is now a 100-year-old Irish woman and longtime patient at Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital. The novel is split up between Roseanne’s narrative of her heartbreaking life, her “secret scripture,” that she keeps under her floorboards, and psychiatrist Dr. Grene’s writings about his patient, Roseanne, and his own hardship.
Dr. Grene is in the midst of evaluating his patients, specifically Roseanne, to decide if they can return to “real life” once the hospital closes down. Both characters take us through different versions of Roseanne’s past, and how she ended up in the asylum, questioning the validity of the statements of those who judged her and locked her away.
The fact that Barry’s book deals with both writing and mental health is no coincidence. Within the realm of the novel and outside of it in life, writing is mentally therapeutic.
Barry explains that for Roseanne, “The very act of writing her story has brought her to a sort of vivid sanity, and health of mind, you might say, which is maybe what stories are for: in the first place why you write them, in the second place why you read them.”
In a way, Barry admittedly behaves as a psychoanalyst in writing about a dark period in his country’s past, when “surgeons would be whistling, talking about golf as he took out your frontal lobe,” and “cliterodectomies (female genital cutting) were routinely done, especially to women like Roseanne…we did this as a medical practice,” said Barry.
In creating a character caught up in the terror of that time, a character that is based on Barry’s own great aunt, he behaves as a “real-life” version of Dr. Grene, a psychiatrist, in terms of how he “diagnoses” his own country.
“What a disgraceful idea it would be to say you’re psychoanalyzing your own country. But there’s a certain degree of that, even if you’re not qualified to do it. That you’re doing it as a gypsy psychiatrist, or a kind of a quack.
“The writer is a quack, isn’t he? That’s what he’s doing. Nobody would dream of giving you a proper wage or setting you up in an office,” said Barry.
As “unqualified” as he may be, Barry sets out on a noble mission when writing his novels, such as “The Secret Scripture”: to “lay claim to somebody,” as Barry explains, to bring forth the silenced and= suppressed voices of Ireland’s past.
In this book, those suppressed voices are those of women like Roseanne who were deemed “crazy” for not conforming to strict, Catholic social rules.
In “The Secret Scripture,” Barry is attempting to “apologize to the ghosts.” Barry said: “In a sense that’s what that book is, it’s going back to the Great Aunt and apologizing to her, and shaking her hand, and recognizing that in raising her, that sort of person, we were probably raising one of the most valuable people in Ireland.
“Because women like her, in our time, in my time, were women who came forward and glittered and glistened. And changed Ireland, basically. Which is the story of Mary Robinson (first female president of Ireland) and all those people. They just were strong and striking and brilliant and made their statement. So this is in a sense her statement, retrospectively spoken by her.”
On the one side, Barry’s mission is a personal one: to bring back people from his past and give them the floor to tell how they were wronged or misunderstood.
“There’s things missing, and there’s darknesses and places that have been rubbed out,” he said.
Barry recalls his grandmother, who he says “cut herself out of every family photograph because she was so ashamed – she didn’t want to exist. She was a drinking woman and all this. But I just want it back.
“I bring Roseanne back. I even bring back people you might think are culpable in the book like [Roseanne’s ex-husband] Tom, which is a portrait of my great uncle. And [Tom’s brother] Jack is my grandfather who I adored. So I’m also gathering them back. Because they are the creatures that I loved as a child.”
On the other hand, with “The Secret Scripture,” and his other Booker-nominated novel, 2005’s “A Long, Long Way,” Barry is performing a public service of sorts: filling in the past’s gaps for an entire nation, and bringing back the forgotten Irish in the national history’s narrative.
“I think the dominant history in Ireland was a nationalist history, in order to create the country basically. This [book] is just a little untidy bits of business to that national history. Because when you have a simple narrative like that, validating people who come into power, you’re going to lose a lot of the subtlety, and a lot of the ambiguities.
“And I’m just after the subtleties and ambiguities. What happened to ordinary Presbyterian working class people, which is vaguely what that book’s about? Or what happened to the soldiers who’d been to the First World War and who had survived it and who were unthanked, like Vietnam vets coming back. What is that? Not anything really but what is that? And what happens when you include it back?” asks Barry.
The acclaimed Irish writer has often discussed how his novels are largely about history, and the ways we implicitly revise it and leave things out when we write it down.
But Barry shared with IrishCentral that “The Secret Scripture” is also very much about loss.
“It was written throughout the time where my own mother was dying,” he said. “I think there’s a huge anxiety [in the book]. I mean first of all you’re trying to keep somebody alive, secondly you’re only their son and you’ve been friends with her for years. And I could feel the whole world passing away. Even though we were at loggerheads at the time and we hadn’t been a sweet and smooth relationship at all.
“But a lot of my work is the stories she told us as kids that have mutated or become what they are in my head now. So as I was writing the book and as my mother was dying there was a sense that the source was disappearing, was being taken away. And the thing that she radiated was an enormous sense of annoyance, between annoyance and anger and utter human grief. ‘I’ve been taken away from the feast of life.’”
Though Barry couldn’t keep his mother on this earth, he could keep her voice, her stories, which is partly what he’s accomplished by writing “The Secret Scripture.”
The novel’s ending has been a point of contention with readers, some of whom dislike the “coincidental,” tidy nature of the conclusion, a conclusion that substantiates Roseanne’s narrative.
But all Barry is concerned with is validating the lost voices of Ireland’s past, particularly those of unrightfully scorned women like Roseanne McNulty, his great aunt.
“Why would I call her back from the shadows in order to leave her unproven?” said Barry.
“No, not as long as I live. And even if it lost me the Booker Prize, it doesn’t matter.”