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The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

In the beginning, Dr. William Grene’s interest in the almost impossibly old woman is merely professional, tinged perhaps with a hint of curiosity. Roseanne McNulty, one hundred years old, was one of the most beautiful girls in County Sligo, Ireland, in her youth. She has been confined in the Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital, where Dr. Grene is the senior psychiatrist, since the days of World War II. Now, in compliance with a change in government policy that has decreed the closing of the hospital, Dr. Grene is evaluating the facility’s patients to make dispassionate recommendations about which ones are mentally fit to resume life in society. As he interviews Roseanne to determine her mental state his objectivity evaporates. Reluctant to cooperate but curiously compassionate toward him, the ancient woman impresses him as “a formidable person,” and indeed she is. Cleverly, carefully, she keeps the doctor at bay, denying him access to the deepest secrets of her past.

All the while, however, Roseanne is at work on a personal narrative of the very facts she withholds from her doctor — the “secret scripture” of the novel’s title. Over a period of years, holding almost nothing back, she has patiently recorded the details of her traumatic life, including her father’s ill-starred attempt to give comfort to a band of Irish rebels, a cataclysmic fire at a local orphanage which changes Roseanne’s fate to the worst, and the descent of her mother into derangement. 

Her narrative becomes a chronicle not only of her deep emotions, but also of a turbulent era in her country’s history, from the upheavals of the Irish civil war to the German bombing of Belfast during World War II. It also speaks personally and poignantly of the struggles of Roseanne’s Protestant family to live a peaceful, unmolested life in the midst of religious prejudice. Slipping continually into her story is a dark and sinister religious figure: a Catholic priest named Father Gaunt who is committed to preserving the perceived purity of his flock and the values of his religion, even if it means destroying the lives and families of those who hold dissenting views. 

As Roseanne scribbles out her testament, Dr. Grene also prepares a journal which  expanded to contain his reflections on history, the human condition, and the failure of his relationship with his wife. Gradually, the two lonely diarists forge a bond, which, in the end, proves far closer than either could possibly have imagined. 

Reading the synopsis of the book from the back cover, unfortunately I have figured out what was the relationship of Dr. Grene and Roseanne, it is so predictable, if you wish to be surprised, you are in for a disappointment. But do away with that expectation, I was pleasantly surprise to be swept away by Roseanne’s life story. 

The Arabs say that everything is already written in the book of life, and our job is merely to fulfil the narrative are lady there, invisible, unknown.

Due to the lyrical prose, on occasion the eloquent voice of the first person narrative can be viewed as unauthentic the lyrical prose has been greatly praised hence the book was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize and winner of the Costa Award for Best Novel. 

The novel encompasses not only some of the most painful episodes in Irish history, but also delves deeply into the emotions of love, passion, and soul-destroying prejudice.  

They shot people into the ruin of their country, into the moil and the ruin, just like Ireland. In the civil war we shot enough of each other to murder the new country in its cradle. Enough and more.

I visited Belfast last April 2010, and the metropolitan city exude an alluring beauty and confidence that I wouldn’t thought 3-month down the road unrest is ignited with mobs violent riots at the Northern Ireland’s traditional Orange Order parades. I am ignorant about Ireland’s past, but Barry was quipped as capturing the turmoil really well. Roseanne’s story begins in 1930s rural Ireland. Infused as it is with prejudice, misogyny and misunderstandings, Roseanne’s narrative clearly parallels the depth and complexity of the political unrest that Ireland has endured, as well as the colossal influence of the church, particularly on the country’s women. It is a helpless and tragic story of a woman’s life. The Costa panel agreed unanimously, and I agreed too, that Barry’s description of childbirth was the truest, most powerful it had ever encountered – but we are led to doubt the veracity of her tales. It became obvious that much of what Roseanne remembers is, in fact, the truth.

Well, I supposed all these things. It is not history. But I am beginning to wonder strongly what is the nature of history. Is it only memory in decent sentences, and if so, how reliable is it? I would suggest, not very. And that therefore most truth and fact offered by these syntactical means is treacherous and unreliable. And yet I recognise that we live our lives, and even keep our sanity, by the lights of this treachery and this unreliability, just as we build our love of country on these paper worlds of misapprehension and untruth. Perhaps this is our nature, and perhaps unaccountability is part of our glory as a creature, that we can build our best and most permanent buildings on foundations of utter dust.

Rating: 3.5/5

I must say the voice of Dr Grene was distracting to my quest of finding about Roseanne’s story and I haven’t invested in Dr Grene as much as I would have in Roseanne. I also find it unconvincingly hasty at the end about the closure of the past. Here I am plodding along for ages wanting to know about the truth at the beginning with nothing  only to be quickly revealed and wrap-up towards the very end, when everyone started to “suddenly” write letters and confessed, and lost letters and diaries are “suddenly” found, and neighbour disclosing the real last name of Roseanne.

The book doesn’t feel like it’s a diary. It is more of a writer’s narration of life story in a first person’s voice. I was taken back by other critic’s obvious revelation that this is a diary, because it doesn’t read like one.

All in all, poignant and haunting, vivid scenes imagined from the writing will stay in your mind long after you put down the book. 

I am reading this for A to Z, Alphabet B.

Paperback. Publisher: Faber & Faber 2008; Length: 312 pages; Setting: 30’s and contemporary Ireland. Source: Library. Finished reading at:  9 July 2010

About the Author:

Sebastian Barry was born in 1955 in Dublin, the son of the late Irish actress Joan O’Hara. He was educated there at Trinity College. He has held academic posts including Honorary Fellow in Writing at the University of Iowa and Writer Fellow at Trinity College, Dublin, as well as working as a playwright, novelist and poet. His play The Steward of Christendom (1995), was first staged at the Royal Court Theatre upstairs in March 1995, and subsequently transferred to Broadway. His 2005 novel A Long Long Way was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He now lives in County Wicklow, Ireland, with his family. 

Sebastian Barry has long been a writer concerned with chronicling the turbulent last century of Ireland’s history, and he continues his theme here. Sebastian Barry’s novel, which won the Costa prize on Wednesday, is based on the tragic life of his own great-aunt. On publication, Dr Grene’s story was less lauded by critics, but nevertheless provides a vital pivot for Roseanne’s memoir. The novel’s shocking ending was deemed somewhat controversial, with some believing that it cost Barry the Man Booker Prize for which the novel was nominated. When it went on to win the Costa Book of the Year award a few months later, head of the judging panel Matthew Parris admitted that ‘almost everybody disliked the ending’.

About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


6 thoughts on “The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

  1. Reading your review, I wouldn’t have guessed you would give 3.5 stars (thought it’d be higher)! This book has been on my radar for a while, but now I don’t think it will ever get to the top of my pile (it’s a tough competition :).

    ps: I skipped your Kundera’s post because Unbearable is next on my tbr pile and I want to know as little as possible going in. Will surely come back after I finish. (I did see your 4.5 stars)

    Posted by mee | July 17, 2010, 11:52 pm
    • @Mee, The premise of Secret Scripture is interesting because of the Irish history and the tragic happenings. If one has no patience, it is quite a hard book to read. therefore 3.5. 🙂 I think you will like Kundera.

      Posted by JoV | July 18, 2010, 12:28 am
  2. It is a shame you didn’t rate this book too highly as the premise sounded so good. I’ve been thinking about this one for a while as love literature that also teaches you a bit of history at the same time. After reading your review may be not one to rush out to read, probably for the best though my tbr list is ridiculously long!

    Posted by jessicabookworm | July 18, 2010, 11:05 am
    • @Jessica, it can be a dreary read if you are not invested in Roseanne.. I suppose it takes patience and being able to appreciate literary excellence to read this one. 🙂

      Posted by JoV | July 19, 2010, 4:54 pm
  3. Hmmh, this sounds really good, too bad you couldn´t give it a higher rating. But I´m very curious now how the narrator´s voice would affect my reading.

    Posted by Bina | July 19, 2010, 10:21 am

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
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The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

JoV's favorite books »
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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