Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

Sebastian Barry's The Secret ScriptureThis blog has often focussed on great openings to novels, interested particularly in that magical moment where you, the reader, accept an opening contract from the author. What makes us choose one book over another is an area where the ending doesn’t come into play.

A handy  approach that also spares us the risk of ruining someone’s reading, by discussing in fine detail a cliff-hanger.

It’s almost impossible, though, to talk about Sebastian Barry‘s The Secret Scripture without discussing the ending. Indeed it seems that discussion about the novel’s ending was one – if not the sole – reason why Barry’s book did not win the 2008 Man Booker prize (without taking anything away from Aravind Adiga’s deserved winner The White Tiger).  Amongst the almost universal praise for Barry’s novel, it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t have some reservations/complaints about the ending (Asylum, The Resident Judge of Port Philip, DovGreyReader, and Lizzy’s Literary Life to name just a few).

Let’s not get into the nitty-gritty of it, but rather focus, perhaps, on why this seemingly flawed note was sounded by Barry.

The story is that of Roseanne McNulty, a dying old woman whose life has preceded and spanned  the birth and development of the Irish Republic, interweaved with the narrative of Dr Grene, the psychiatrist in the Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital where Roseanne has spent the best part of her adult life.

It’s familiar territory for Barry, who has, both as a playwright and novelist, examined personal stories to reveal the complexities of modern Irish history. And it’s by looking back over that familiar territory that the explanation for what many have seen as a contrived ending  comes.

First of all, as Barry has acknowledged, The Secret Scripture (like much of his work) is based on actual characters from his own family history. This personal connection explains to a certain extent the emotional resonance that many, including this reader, felt uneasy with.

The more important factor, though, is Barry’s grounding as a playwright and his ear. There’s a wonderful profile of Barry, done by Irish broadcaster RTE back in 2007, where actress Sinead Cusack talks about her reticence to play May O’Hara in Our Lady of Sligo:

“When I was offered the part by Sebastian my initial reaction was that the play was a brilliant one, but that I simply couldn’t do it. No actor’s brain could hold all those words, but the even more crucial problem for me was I thought ‘she’s a monster’.  How is an audience going to sit in an auditorium, and watch this vitriolic, angry, bitter, furious, dying woman. What is there to empathise with, or to understand. And Sebastian, in his own inimitable fashion,  said ‘the play will give you grace, Sinead. And he was right. It did. I got wings'”

Indeed, listening to the profile and lengthy interview with Barry himself, one is struck by how much of Barry’s career has been spent not just writing wonderful words, but also convincing directors, producers and actors to give him the benefit of the doubt, convinced of his own ear.

I’ve no doubt, then, that the ending of The Secret Scripture works if read with a certain rhtyhm and faith – something which is perhaps over-and-above the standard agreement between reader and author.  The judges on the Booker panel obviously felt it a breach of contract, whilst those on the Costa prize  obviously felt it within their scope.

Read a previous TMO interview with Sebastian Barry 

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