Irish novels. Novels about Ireland, novels by Irish authors, novels about Irish people, whether here or across the pond. Is there a reason they’re so depressing?
This past weekend (before I even started Tethered if I must be honest) I read The Secret Scripture, by Sebastian Barry (I didn’t think that could be his real name, so I just wikipediaed it. It is. Hmm. I like the name Sebastian, from the Greek, meaning “venerable” or “worthy of honor.”) I guess I enjoyed it well enough, but why did it have to be so depressing? It reminded me of two books, for completely different reasons, and so I’m going to review it in light of that. To set it up in context, The Secret Scripture is about Roseanne McNulty, a woman who has spent a great majority of her life in a mental asylum. As the asylum prepares to move to a newer, smaller facility, one of the doctors takes the time to talk to her and try to discover if she is, in fact, sane enough to live out her days in the free world.
This book, short-listed for the 2008 Man Booker prize, reminded me of the Man Booker Prize winner of 2007, The Gathering by Anne Enright, which I somewhat detested. They are both written by authors born in Dublin in the mid-20th century, both deal with Irish families with deep secrets and both are narrated by women with problems keeping their memories in order. I recall specifically a passage nearer the end of The Gathering where the narrator suddenly informs us that this horrific scene between her brother and the landlord we have been swerving around the whole story is kind of fuzzy. Maybe it’s actually her? Maybe she doesn’t remember it at all? Maybe she thinks that it’s her because she feels guilty for not helping? This is the way I felt the whole way through The Secret Scripture.
Roseanne tells her story in a way that seems so straightforward and to the point, and yet, every time the doctor’s narrative interrupts, we are presented with conflicting information and jarring incongruities. The story is very dependent of the reader’s decision about who to believe. Another review I read said that the writing was “whimsical” and that it was obvious that Barry is also a poet. Um. Okay. “Whimsical?” Really? *Alright, I just looked up whimsical, and while it can mean “lightly fanciful” it can also mean “subject to erratic behavior or unpredictable change” which I guess could describe the narration to some degree. I just found it confusing. Especially the old woman’s narration, which would start at one point and then suddenly launch into an “Anyway, I turned around and he was standing right there…” that made me turn pages back, thinking, when is she talking about? Did she set this scene at all? only to discover that no, she hadn’t, she was just starting out in media res of yet another unspecified situation. I found this irritating.
The second book I was reminded of is somewhat cliche. Of course I would relate the two. Their plots are set up nearly identically. Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace also deals with false/faulty memories of a woman deemed insane and institutionalized. Grace’s story is also punctuated by the musings of a doctor who is trying to discover whether she is the innocent victim of circumstance or perpetrator of a violent crime.
Oddly, I found the doctor’s interludes about his own life in The Secret Scripture much more frustrating and rabbittrail-ish than I did in Alias Grace, perhaps partly because Atwood is a supremely talented writer, but mostly I think it had to do with the fact that with Atwood’s Dr. Jordan’s interactions with the women in his empty bleak life obviously could be tied to the themes of the larger plot (and, actually, most of Atwood’s fiction) – “Woman: Temptress or Maiden?” With Barry’s Dr. Grene, I felt confused about what his disintegrated marriage and his wife’s illness had to do at all with the themes about Ireland’s civil war and the impact of religion on one woman’s life. I felt like it detracted from the main plot, rather than supporting it.
So now that I’ve written this, oddly enough I’m not as sure that I liked this book. I guess I feel that while Barry is worth another read, this might not have been his finest hour.