by Sebastian Barry; New York, Viking Penguin, 2008, 304 pages, $24.95
Dr. Peele is chief psychiatrist, Montgomery County Government, Rockville, Maryland.
On the westward train from Dublin to Roscommon, the grass got less green, the sheep fewer. The homes seemed to have had no repairs in decades. On arriving at Roscommon, I asked my host, E. Fuller Torrey, "What grows in Roscommon?" Fuller answered, "Stones." In 1982, I was invited by Fuller to visit him in Roscommon, Ireland, where he was researching the unusually high rate of psychiatric illness there. Was the high incidence due to the mentally healthy leaving Roscommon, leaving only the psychiatrically ill? Or was there perhaps a genetic explanation?
Sebastian Barry's novel, Secret Scripture, suggests another answer: Western Ireland's hardening conditions across the first half of the 20th century (possibly the lingering after-effects of the Irish Potato Famine a half century earlier?) had turned the people into stones, whose harshness toward each other often led the vulnerable in society to be hospitalized with alleged psychiatric illnesses.
The novel plays out in the form of two scripts written simultaneously. The first script is the chronicle of a centenarian, Roseanne Clear—born at the turn of the 20th century and residing in a psychiatric hospital in the 1930s—who decides to write her autobiography, secretly thinking that because she is 100 years old, "No one even knows I have a story. Next year, next week, tomorrow, I will no doubt be gone. … There will never be a stone at my head, and no matter." In the second script, her psychiatrist, Dr. Grene, is writing notes of what he has uncovered of Roseanne's background, as he has to decide her disposition pending the Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital's imminent closure.
The novel consists only of these two scripts. We read what Roseanne wrote on a given day, followed by Dr. Grene's notes on what he has uncovered that day. Roseanne's notes capture the impact of Ireland's external and internal conflicts of the 1910s through the 1930s. Power—whether Catholic, British, or Irish Republican—crushes the vulnerable people of Roscommon, leaving them feeling misled and betrayed and resulting in their killing each other. Dr. Grene's notes include sidebars reflecting his life, including a troubled marriage and a disappointing career. Paradoxically, it is Roseanne who notes, "few people stick to the articles of their characters, and will keep breaking away from them."
Despite the many incredible moments in the plot, the novel is an effortless read, thanks to Sebastian Barry's graceful and elegiac prose. In the end, it is clear that Roseanne will have a stone for her grave.