Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry: My take on the book behind the upcoming movie


I can't say I loved Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture. Not like I loved the bright and breezy Where'd You Go Bernadette which I read just before tackling Barry's much weightier and complex novel, also written in the epistolary style. While I found Barry's book, shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, slow-going, challenging but ultimately satisfying, I think my personal preferences are for material a little more easily accessible.

The basic story is that of a doctor assessing an ancient patient's ability to be relocated when the mental hospital, where the one hundred year old woman has spent most of her life, is slated for demolition. The patient, Roseanne reveals her life before her institutionalization in an epistolary she keeps hidden under the floorboards. That history - tumultuous and tragic - isn't quite clear because Roseanne, while well-intentioned has the expected issues of memory loss and revision that come with one hundred years of living. Even if she is sane - and we're not at all sure of her mental state - what really happened and what she remembers or wants to remember may not the be same thing. What has she forgotten over the years? What has she reforged and altered to protect herself?
What of your personal history have you revised to protect yourself? That's a theme I find myself confronting over and over again on my other blog where I write 'memoir' and struggle to retrace my own footsteps. I can only tell my own truth, but it's painful to discover that doesn't always align with another's reality. 
Dr. Grene, her psychiatrist, at seventy plus years, isn't a young man himself. He's been caring for Roseanne for at least a quarter century, and his side of the story, his efforts to get to the truth of Roseanne's life, as well as the story of his own life, with its loves and losses, is told in his own words in an alternating narrative.

Both have compelling tales to tell but much of Roseanne's early years take place against a background that almost demands historical context. Sadly my knowledge of Irish history is shamefully small - as in close to zero - and Barry's writing is full of references to the Irish uprising and often veiled allusions to the surrounding political ramifications so there were notions that were difficult for me to fully fathom.

Vanessa Redgrave Now and Then (Camelot)

Wading through the work - that's how it felt sometimes - the story itself is dramatic and cinematic. Little wonder then that the book, basically an unravelling of a mystery, is currently in preproduction with filming in Ireland starting up soon - imdb says 'shooting in September' but I can't find any evidence of that. While I'm finding some of the casting mystifying - Eric Bana as Dr. Grene for example - I can see this has the potential to be a thrilling period drama. The venerable Vanessa Redgrave has been cast as Roseanne with Rooney Mara as the younger version.  Mara is not quite the alluring beauty the young Roseanne is meant to be - and that Vanessa Redgrave was in films like Camelot and Blow Up. Much is made of Roseanne's looks and while Mara does have the requisite mysterious aura I still think Jessica Chastain, originally cast as Roseanne would have been the ultimate choice. There is a cold and cruel Catholic priest that figures prominently in Roseanne's world, Fr. Gaunt, who will be played by the gorgeous Theo James. I initially balked at his casting - why waste his romantic appeal by casting him as the rigid priest? - now that I've read the book, and understand his role in the events of Roseanne's life, I can see how the playing against type could work really well. Jeremy Irons and Jack Reynor are also onboard, the latter plays one of Roseanne's love interests, probably her husband, but that's not entirely clear. Which fits right in with my take on the book! The film will be directed by Irish director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot.)


If you'd like to read a real review of Barry's The Secret Scripture from reviewers who have a greater understanding of literary criticism and the important historical context referenced in the novel,  I've got two links for you to check out.

The New York Times
The Guardian

 I won't assign rating points; I don't feel I'm qualified. As to 'enjoyment points'? Hmmm, I'd give it 3 out of 5 Irish roses.

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