Much of life is unknown. Much of the world is uncharted. There are many uncertainties that continue to frustrate man, and we have become a society obsessed with seeking the truth. People believe that truth is untouchable. There is an understanding that truth does not change; people change after discovering the truth. Although this may hold true in instances such as universal laws of mathematics or science, it is not the case in history or in human memory. Sebastian Barry addresses this issue through the book’s various characters, and particularly through the three voices of Roseanne McNulty, Fr. Gaunt and Dr. Grene. Barry spends little time explaining the characters’ emotions, and instead leaves it to beautifully poetic prose describing only the situations themselves, which give the reader the pleasure and the challenge of unwinding Roseanne’s complex and fascinating history. Roseanne’s account sifts through her century of collected memories while filtering out sections of her life, which calls the reader to question the validity of her statements. Is she a historian chronicling the past or an author creating fiction?
Towards the end of the novel, she confesses that her memories and her imaginings are “lying deeply in the same place” and that the process of excavating them is troublesome. Roseanne’s voice is urgent, colloquial and full of self-corrections. She admits that everything she recalls “may not be real” and that she has “taken refuge in other impossible histories, in dreams, in fantasies”. Roseanne points out herself, “No one has the monopoly on truth…not even myself…”. One begins to wonder if perhaps it is Roseanne’s unique delivery of the storyline that is important, and not the unraveling of the truth itself. Everyone notices different details in a situation, and can interpret them differently. They may only see parts of an event and therefore make potentially conflicting conclusions. When history is subjective and memory is questionable, can we ever really know anything with confidence?
For example, Fr. Gaunt annulled Roseanne’s marriage, after glimpsing her in the company of another man, on the official charge of nymphomania. In Roseanne’s account, she had agreed to meet the man out of her love for her father, as the man was linked to the memory of her father. Her motive was misinterpreted by Fr. Gaunt, however, and her life began its decent in a downward spiral from then on. Fr. Gaunt represents the kind of power the Catholic Church had on society. It is not the say the power was corrupt, but dangerous nonetheless. Fr. Gaunt did what he felt was necessary and proper at the time, and single-handedly destroyed Roseanne’s everything in the action. In The Secret Scripture, Fr. Gaunt serves as a source of authority. His notes are formal and precise—acting as a check to Roseanne’s more lively account.
The second active voice in the book, is Dr. Grene, which inspects Roseanne’s life from the book’s present time. His purpose is much more complicated than those of Roseanne and Fr. Gaunt, and acts much like a historian as he tries to piece together this messy puzzle. Through his process of evaluating his patients, Dr. Grene becomes very attached to Roseanne, and he finds himself in paradoxical reversal with his patient, speaking to her of his own losses and hurts. As Dr. Grene attempts to piece together the truth—to balance Roseanne’s temperamental memory and Fr. Gaunt’s dry notations—Dr. Grene also finds himself adding details of his own, like seeing feathers fall from the sky, to the original story.
This section of the book is where it becomes clear that discovering the truth isn’t the point. The Secret Scripture is not a book with a dramatic ending. In fact, one might suggest that the ending is rather melodramatic. Nevertheless, the lyrical prose resonates three very different voices that weave together forming a powerful message about history. It is as if Barry is saying: Do not look for a definite story. Do not question Roseanne’s sanity. Instead, look at the haziness of the flawed memories and believe they all hold a certain amount of truth. History, after all, does not tell of what happened, but instead what may have happened.