The Secret Scripture

May 23, 2009 // Filed under Blog

Today’s New York Times contains an interesting opinion piece written by Irish author John Banville regarding Ireland’s collective horror over the recent findings of its Commission to Inquire Into Child Abuse. Banville makes the point that, in fact, most everyone in Ireland knew this was happening over the last century, hence he poses the question, what does it mean to know something?

Banville states that the powerful collusion between the Catholic Church and government figures made it possible for such corruption and abuse to persist so systemically because these figureheads “ruled” absolutely. He suggests that the general populous believed that “If children were sent to orphanages, industrial schools and reformatories, it must be because they were destined for it, and must belong there. What happened to them within those unscalable walls was not a concern of ours.” People averted their eyes, too cowed to question authority figures.


This leads me to consider the ability of writers to grapple with Banville’s question of what it means to know something. One particularly good book that I recently read pertains here because it addresses the reluctance of good people to fully know what is right before their eyes. Written by noted Irish author Sebastian Barry, The Secret Scripture beautifully combines the story of an aged patient in a regional mental hospital with that of her psychiatrist who has barely made the effort to know her.

Roseanne McNulty is approaching her 100th year and has decided to record her own history in which she writes, “The terror and hurt in my story happened because when I was young, I thought others were the authors of my fortune or misfortune: I did not know that a person could hold up a wall made of imaginary bricks and mortar against the horrors and cruel, dark tricks of time that assail us, and be the author therefore of themselves.”

What she records about her long and troubled life differs drastically from the official record, and Dr. Grene, her psychiatrist, is too apt to believe the official version. Still, there is something about Roseanne that intrigues him even though he is prone to take as truth the possible falsehoods and slanders about her, some of which were perpetrated by a parish priest.

It is startling to consider what Dr. Grene almost loses because of what he thinks he knows about Roseanne’s history. Roseanne’s history is Ireland’s history, and perhaps the author is also suggesting how regrettable it is that his fellow countrymen do not really know their own past. Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture was on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize of 2008 and is the winner of the 2009 Costa Book Award for novels. It is literature exquisitely written. ~ Evelyn Fischel

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