I sometimes go on jags where I’ll find a new writer and read three or four books in a row, and Sebastian Barry has been one of those writers for me this winter. Irish literature was my undergraduate specialization — I went to Dublin for a semester my senior year to study Joyce (and lucked out and also got to work with Eavan Boland before she became famous). So it’s been a delight these past couple of years to discover Anne Enright’s work, and now, Sebastian Barry.
Barry is an interesting figure — his mother was the Irish actress Joan O’Hara and he writes in any number of genres — plays, poetry and fiction. In an interview at Three Monkeys, he said that, “Most of anything I have written begins life as a short poem, sometimes years and years before.” And you can see this to an extent in the way his work is peopled by constellations of related characters — Roseanne McNulty in The Secret Scripture has an encounter with Eneas McNutly, the protagonist of The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty. Annie Dunne is connected to WIllie Dunne whose story is the subject of A Long Long Way. These feel like characters he’s lived with for a long time, or perhaps like characters he couldn’t quite shake, and had to sit down to write their stories in order to get rid of them. The imagined lives of these characters loop over and around one another, and keep circling some of the same problems, problems of how to live in a modern world while also navigating a superstitious culture where religion, reputation and pride keep seeming to get the best of people.
I put off reading The Secret Scripture because I didn’t like the dopey cover — it’s a woman in a plain cloth coat with stupendous angel wings coming off her back, and I have a serious aversion for anything magical. But the book has nothing to do with that, and I’m sorry I put it off because this was one of those books that haunted me long after I finished it. The story follows a psychiatrist at an decrepit pile of a mental asylum that’s about to be shut down. Up under the eaves is a very old woman, who has been there so long no one really knows her story, or if she still has people outside or even how old she really is. She’s so ancient that her medical records have physically disintegrated. During the long years of her confinement, Roseanne has been secretly writing her life story, and stowing the bits of paper under a loose floorboard — the secret scripture of the title. As the story unfolds, as Roseanne tells her own story, and Dr. Greene uncovers what he can, what emerges is a tale of striving and cruelty, a story about what the ambitious will do to get ahead, about the ironclad grudges the Irish can hold, about the human sacrifice upon which the Republic is built. It’s something many of us know from our own families, and seems to be one trait that carries down through the generations no matter how long it’s been since your family came off the boat — “Irish Alzheimer’s” the joke goes. “You forget everything but the grudges.” I finished this book in two states, slightly annoyed by the deus ex machina that occurs late in the story, but primarily, chilled to the bone by a portrait of cruelty survived with grace or perhaps more accurately, through grace.
Annie Dunne is a quieter book on the surface, but once again Barry has somehow managed to get inside the psyche of that most vulnerable of persons, the extra single woman, the older woman without children, and with no visible means of support. At the beginning of the story, the nephew who Annie Dunne helped to raise in Dublin is dropping his own two children off to stay with Annie and the cousin who took her in on a hardscrabble farm down country. The children ripple the surface of the placid lives of these two old spinsters, who have found a kind of peace with one another. Annie, who went up to Dublin to help when her sister took to her bed with what sounds like a classic case of depression, finds herself cast out after her sister dies. Her brother in law marries again, and it’s not to faithful, innocent, Annie. Luckily her cousin Sarah, who was left a small farm of her own in Wicklow, saves her by taking her in, and the summer of the children’s visit coincides with a threat to that safe harbor. The feckless handyman from down the road is making advances at elderly Sarah, trying to convince her that love hasn’t passed her by, that she needs a man around the place, when everyone else can see that it’s the property he’s really got his eye on. What strikes me about Barry’s work thoughout all three of these books is his keen sense of the lived experience of those who are not particularly adept, those who can barely seem to manage, who miss social signals that might have allowed them to forge a relationship that could have saved them. He’s brilliant with the obtuseness of innocence, and the terror that events inspire in those who aren’t quite capable of navigating change. Annie Dunne is one of those portraits that leave you wondering, is the old woman an innocent, or is she actually more clever than we know, is she at the mercy of circumstance, or this once at least, does she bend her fate to her own will?
The third Barry I read was The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty — partially because I was curious about Eneas after reading The Secret Scripture. Again, we have a sweet-tempered character who is not very good at navigating the shoals of life in a country where the undercurrents of violence and rebellion run counter to the officially-sanctioned values of the culture. Eneas, wanting to fight in the Great War, wanting like many a young man to take part in a Great and Noble Cause, makes the mistake of joining the British Merchant Navy, branding himself forever a traitor to the nascent cause of Irish Nationalism. An innocent blunder at 16 that haunts and follows him for the rest of his life, he is cast into exile and returns only to find no refuge with his family, a family who have done well in his absence, and who don’t seem to miss him in particular. Like Annie Dunne and Roseanne McNulty, Eneas bumbles through life, at the mercy of forces he does not understand, and his grace is the friendship he forges with Harcourt, a fellow exile, who becomes his true companion.
For novels largely taken with the consequences of cruelty and violence, these are none of them dark books. Partially this is due to Barry’s astonishing way with a sentence — he’s not a showy writer, but his sentences resonate with the cadences of our innermost thoughts. Even in these, the lives of the castaways, Barry plumbs the luminous core that gives even the most disordered life that meaning which we all feel is ours alone. There is not one of us who does not feel his or her own life to be without meaning, no matter what society might tell us, and it is the inner lives of these sweet and broken characters, that Barry enacts with a care and attention that is truly lovely. And, as with the two Marilynne Robinson books, I found myself wanting to go back and re-read these books a second time, wanted to go back and see how they resonate off one another now that I know what happens.