Sunday, 27 April 2008

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

Faber and Faber €24.30

IN HIS rich new novel The Secret Scripture, Sebastian Barry uses the memoirs of an old lady to track the savage nation birthed in the 1920s by the successors of 1916's idealist revolutionaries.

Roseanne Clear will soon be 100, and her psychiatrist, William Grene, is examining her for the purpose of deciding whether she is suitable for 'care in the community' as the mental hospital where she has been incarcerated all her life closes.

To 'help' him, Grene has the document written by the rigid priest who committed her, Fr Aloysius Mary Gaunt - obviously modelled on John Charles McQuaid.

Roseanne, meanwhile, is secretly writing her own memoir.

Her father was - or perhaps was not - murdered by anti-Treatyites. She was - apparently - married to new TD Tom McNulty, from a family of the smiling bigots of the high-Catholic haut-bourgeois 1930s Fine Gael.

She may murdered her baby, or the child may - as the reader begins to suspect - have survived and be close to her still.

Barry's hyper-realism gives the stories - of Republicans carrying in a teenager shot dead by the Free State Army, of the gravid Roseanne stumbling across Sligo Bay clutching chains as the sea rises around her - an immediacy not achieved since the great novels of the 19th century.

Its modern setting allows him to theorise on the effect of the savagery - did the cat o' nine tails floggings and hangings of Republicans lead to the corruption of today's politicians?

It is possible - likely - that you will weep as you read this book, as well as laughing at Roseanne's mischievous dry wit.

The Secret Scripture is one of the first great novels of this century.

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