Sebastian Barry novel wins Costa Prize for fiction

 

HAVING ALMOST but not quite won the 2008 Man Booker prize, Sebastian Barry's novel, The Secret Scripture, was yesterday declared winner of the Costa Prize for Fiction.

Just as his previous novel, A Long, Long Wayhad been shortlisted for several major awards, The Secret Scripturehas already emerged as both popular as well as critically praised.

The story of Roseanne McNulty, forgotten and alone, possibly approaching her 100th year, a long-time resident of a mental hospital and very obviously not insane, is replete with every humiliation dished out to women in a patriarchal Ireland, shocked readers - yet also beguiled such is the grace of Barry's lyric prose.

Not for the first time has the Costa, still more famous for its previous name, the Whitbread, compensated for the mistakes made by the Booker judges. Barry, as an internationally established playwright as well as a Booker short list veteran was the favourite for Booker, yet was beaten at the tape by Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger.

Barry's Costa victory comes as no surprise to Costa watchers. Although the novel's central device that of a lost child is obvious, Barry sustains emotional force through the sympathetic portrayal of Roseanne who, despite her hardships, hardships that reflect on Irish society, never becomes bitter.

It is a polemic of sorts, it is also vivid social history. In keeping with many of Barry's central characters, she tends to express herself in a heightened lyricism, yet this is a feature of Barry's style.

Among the novels competing with The Secret Scripturewas Patrick McGrath's Trauma, one of the finest British novels published last year from one of the most consistent writers. McGrath's central theme is the mind and its multiple darkness.

His novels explore the abiding chaos of human psychology, as a true original; he is second only to the great JG Ballard.

Ignored by Booker, the shortlisting of Traumayet again confirms that the Costa has got it right.

Interestingly, Barry and McGrath are both exploring memory and psychological hurt and their contrasting approach is fascinating.

Although The Secret Scripturewas initially overshadowed on publication in Ireland by the hype surrounding Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, the situation changed dramatically when Netherlandfailed to make the Booker shortlist.

Barry did and The Secret Scriptureslowly asserted itself to the point that it was expected to win. It must be added that the story of the 2008 Booker was less about who was going to win and more about the failure of Netherlandto live up to the publicity campaign.

Ironically, with two bestselling novels and the author of five novels to date, Barry continues to be regarded as a playwright who also writes fiction.

Should he win the Costa Book of the Year in two weeks with The Secret Scripture, this may change, but for the moment, the playwright who also writes fiction must be feeling very pleased.