The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

It’s 2011, the start of a new reading year, but I still have a few reviews to post of books that I read in December 2010.  This is the first, and I’ll be posting another two later in the week before I start to discuss my 2011 reading.

The Secret Scripture tells the story of Roseanne McNulty, who has spent most of her adult life in Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital. She’s now almost one hundred years old and has decided to devote her final days to recording her life story in a secret journal. Meanwhile, the hospital is about to be closed down and Dr Grene has begun the slow process of reassessing his patients to see if they can return to the community. There’s something about Roseanne that intrigues him and he becomes determined to find out why she is there and how she came to be admitted to a mental institution.

The story is told in the form of two alternating narratives: the first is Roseanne’s Testimony of Herself in which she relates anecdotes and memories from her childhood in Sligo, Ireland, building up a picture of the events that led to her admission to the mental hospital. Roseanne is a captivating narrator with a strong, memorable voice and her story is absolutely heartbreaking; it seemed her whole life was just one tragedy after another. The second narrative is from Dr Grene’s Commonplace Book, the doctor’s account of his investigations into Roseanne’s past, as well as the details of his own troubled marriage and strained relationships. Although Dr Grene’s voice was not as strong as Roseanne’s, I still found his sections of the story interesting.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot because I think this is one of those books that will have more impact if you go into it knowing as little as possible. What I do want to tell you about is Sebastian Barry’s writing style. His style is quite unusual, very poetic in places, and it took me a few chapters to get used to it. But as the book went on, I became more and more impressed by the quality of the writing. There are so many great lines, such as when Dr Grene describes his relationship with his wife:

Now we are two foreign countries and we simply have our embassies in the same house. Relations are friendly but strictly diplomatic.

Or when Roseanne describes how her mother’s beauty has faded:

She was like a painting with its varnish darkening, obscuring the beauty of the work.

It really was beautifully written and the plot started to take second place to the gorgeous prose.

The author assumes you have some previous knowledge of 20th century Irish history. There are a lot of references to the Free State, the Irregulars, the IRA, Eamonn de Valera, the Royal Irish Constabulary and the Irish civil war, for example. I only have a basic knowledge of Irish history and although I could still follow what was happening, I think I might have got more out of the novel if I’d had a deeper understanding of the historical and political context. I also knew nothing at all about the bombing of Belfast during World War II, described here by one of the characters:

I ran like a demon along the ways, screaming I do not doubt, and saying wild prayers for the people of Belfast, and soon there were hundreds in the streets, all doing the same as me, people in their nightdresses and people naked as babes, running and screaming, and at the edge of the city we just kept going, and the waves of planes had come in behind us, all the while without mercy letting go the bombs, and an hour later or maybe more, I cannot say, I was perched on the edge of a huge dark mountain, and looked back, and Belfast was a huge lake of fire, burning, burning, the flames leaping like red creatures, tigers and such, high high into the sky…

This is just one example of Barry’s vivid imagery; I could have included a lot more.

The only thing that disappointed me about this book was a plot development towards the end that just felt too contrived and unrealistic. If it wasn’t for that one negative point, The Secret Scripture would definitely have been one of my favourite books of 2010.

Highly recommended

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9 thoughts on “The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

    • Helen says:

      I guessed how it was going to end, but kept hoping that I would be wrong. It seemed too obvious and convenient. I still loved the book overall though.

  1. Jo says:

    I completely agree that the writing was beautiful. And I felt a little let down by the all too convenient ending, although I hadn’t seen it coming. I did go back and spot the clues afterwards though. However, I thik what fascinated me most with this book was the ideas about unreliability of memory and perception of time.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, it raised some fascinating questions. Can one person’s memory of an event be ‘right’ and another ‘wrong’? Do we sometimes choose what to remember and what to forget?

  2. Annie says:

    I loved this book, although I do agree about the plot contrivance at the end. Have you read his Booker nominated ‘A Long Long Way’? If not, I really do recommend it.

    • Helen says:

      Hi Annie. No, I haven’t read A Long Long Way yet – this is the only Sebastian Barry book I’ve read. It’s on my wish list though, so I’m glad to hear you’d recommend it.

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