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'The Secret Scripture' is a book that sounded so familiar that it was only when a friend lent it to me that I realised that I hadn't read it. One of the top ten bestsellers, it was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize and won the Costa Book Award in 2008.
I think perhaps it was the knowledge that this novel was a sequel to another book with a rather long-winded title ('The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty') that put me off, but when I actually read The Secret Scripture I found that there is no need to know the back story of Eneas McNulty; each book can be read in isolation with equal enjoyment and in any order.
There is no avoiding the truth; 'The Secret Scripture' is an incredibly sad and moving story - but it is also a riveting description of a tumultuous period in Irish history; an intricate and woven story of love and abandonment; and an evocative description of small town life, hierarchy and prejudice.
The narrative centres around Roseanne; incredibly beautiful, mentally fragile, brave and betrayed. Her story is told in the first person and jumps around in time to draw the reader in to the twisting and dramatic path that makes up her life. We first meet Roseanne when she is nearly 100 years old, and quickly learn that she lives in the mental hospital where she has been incarcerated for the majority of her life. We are not told why she is there and we are left guessing about the truth of her mental state. The story is very much in the here and now; her relationship with her psychiatrist Dr Grene being the main focus as he tries to find out about her history and to decide if she was justly committed all those years ago.
As their relationship gradually unfolds we also learn a little about Dr Grene and his own complicated home life; a wife who is both strange and estranged - a life lived in an echoing and empty house.
The stories are told through two journals; Dr Grene's 'Commonplace Book' where, as senior psychiatrist at the Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital, he integrates detailed notes about his elderly patient with comments and thoughts about his own personal life; and 'Roseanne's Testimony of Herself', where Roseanne writes her thoughts, her memories and records the precious happiness that made up her childhood and youth. These two documents alternate throughout the book as the reader jumps between present day events and past history, gradually building a detailed and intimate picture of the two main protagonists.
Although Dr Grene is a fascinating character, it is Roseanne who really captures the imagination. Through her secret journal she gradually builds up a picture of her childhood in the town of Sligo; her father is both her teacher and greatest childhood friend, working first as the local grave digger and later as the town rat catcher. Roseanne has beautiful memories of their family life together and integrates idyllic memories with more violent and terrifying stories of encounters with angry irregular soldiers of the civil war. As she grows up into a beautiful young woman, she becomes "a mournful temptation" to the men of the town and finds that she has become a pawn in the ambitions and desires of others - fighting for her survival in what has become a very hostile world.
It is only when Dr Grene digs a bit deeper into Roseanne's past that the reader starts to question the old lady's memories - is it age that makes her stories so different from the traumatic truth, or is she really as insane as the authorities believe? For a long time it is difficult to see where the story is taking us, as we learn the horrible truth behind Roseanne's happy memories. Layer after layer is peeled away until eventually the truth about her history is revealed.
I loved every minute of this book; it was like a detective story where one clue was revealed at a time, interspersed with a few red herrings to keep me on my toes. Roseanne seemed to be the victim of the times she lived in; a period when Ireland was torn apart by civil war - what Sebastian Barry describes as the years full of "fumes of hatred". Her father is a protestant and the turbulent politics those years, with its violence and betrayal wash around Roseanne and have a profound impact on her life.
Roseanne is one of the most memorable characters I have found in a novel, and this is mostly due to the skill with which Sebastian Barry describes her life. Barry has the ability to slightly adjust his writing so that Roseanne's voice rings true whatever age we meet her at; from an innocent child who really only wants to please; she describes the anger of the Catholic rebel soldiers, "a horrible laugh like the lash of rain in your face", and yet as a very old woman her voice is calmer and resigned, but still retains the humour and innocence that we see in the young girl.
The events that take place during her life do make me want to stand up and give her a good shake as she is abused and controlled by the men of the community, but this is a sign of the connection that Barry builds between the reader and his characters - as well as a reminder of the misogyny of the men of the time and the helplessness of the women.
Sebastian Barry is an Irish playwright, novelist and poet, born in Dublin in 1955. He has published 14 plays, 2 works of poetry, and 7 novels. The Secret Scripture was his sixth work of fiction. He is widely considered to be one of Ireland's finest writers.
A quick search on the web will reveal that review and reader alike are filled with admiration at the skill and beauty of Barry's writing. An equal number are enraged at what they see as a weak and irritating ending, but I would not let this put you off.
This book has left me with a deeper understanding and interest in the Irish troubles, as well as memorable characters and a truly memorable plot. I would wholeheartedly recommend the book to anybody for its intricate plot, beautifully drawn characters and its well- researched and authentic Irish voice. I can't wait to read another Barry book, and will probably search out the prequel as soon as I can, so that I can complete the picture of Roseanne and her family.
'The Secret Scripture' was published in paperback in 2008 by Faber and Faber. It has 312 pages.
It was widely praised, winning the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Book of the Year at the 2008 Costa Awards, Novel of the Year and the Choice Award the Irish Book Awards. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
Roscommon Mental Hospital is set to be torn down and the director, Dr. Grene has to figure out what to do with his patients, including Roseanne McNulty. Should he move her to the new facility, or should he find someplace for her on the outside where she can restart her life? The problem with the first option is that she doesn't seem at all crazy. On the other hand, she's been living there almost all her life, so how would she survive in the outside world? What's more she is already about 100 years old, so just how much life does she even have left to live? To help him decide, Dr. Grene begins delving into Roseanne's history to find out why she was placed in an insane asylum at such a young age. At the same time, Roseanne has decided to secretly write down the story of her life from before her being institutionalized. This is "The Secret Scripture" a story of two people, both separate and interconnected, by Sebastian Barry.
This tale is told in alternating voices. On the one hand, we get Roseanne's writing her story of her past in a small Irish town called Sligo during the 1930s. On the other, we have Dr. Grene writing a diary of both his situation with the hospital as well as about his wife who recently died. So while Roseanne is writing as a form of closure, Dr. Grene is writing as a process of mourning. What's more, both have two different issues to confront. Roseanne has not only her past but also in relation to her life at the hospital. Dr. Grene needs to mourn not only his wife, but also the dissolution of his hospital and the dispersion of all those he has cared for over the years - and most particularly for Roseanne who certainly hasn't long to live. So while these two narratives take place in parallel, they also have things that make them intertwine.
What I found the most effective was how Barry composed Roseanne's writings. Barry uses innocence and lightness in Roseanne's words, which makes the reader feel like we can believe that perhaps she isn't totally sane. And yet, there is also a feeling that what she writes is grounded in truth. In addition, rather than having Roseanne just writing her history, she also writes about things happening around her at present. In her scripture she relates to visits by Dr. Grene as well as to what she sees outside and also the other patient who cleans her floor. This is how Barry instills in us that Roseanne is writing this as a reminder of her past and not as a separate story, which works extremely well.
Since Dr. Grene's writing is being used to trying to make sense of his own life, while also make preparations for closing the hospital, most of his parts concentrate on the present. However, he also includes his investigations into Roseanne and how she came to the hospital as a way of trying to see what would be the best solution for her. Why this is necessary even though he has been her psychiatrist for many years, is because she's been mostly incommunicative. This is another way that Barry builds up these characters, while also allowing us to be shown who they are and why they act as they do, without telling us outright. Remember, the golden rule of fiction writing is "show, don't tell" and Barry has certainly learned this lesson. Moreover, using both voices means that we also get to see first-person accounts of the other characters, making them both very vivid to the readers in the physical sense as well as the mental and emotional sense.
This being the first novel of Barry's that I've read I didn't know that the name McNulty and the town of Sligo were already parts of Barry's repertoire. In fact, from what I can see, some of what happens in his earlier novel "The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty" actually comes into play in this book. I only discovered this long after reading "The Secret Scripture" and I can truthfully say that you don't need to have read the previous novel in order to enjoy this one. Moreover, I felt that I nothing was missing, and thankfully, the author didn't attempt to fill his readers in on the background.
But what really sold me on this book was the style of the writing. Not only can you feel that we have two distinct voices here, but that the genders of both writers are both very clear. There's nothing masculine in Roseanne's sections, or falsely feminine, which could be partially expected from a male writer. With Dr. Grene, we don't get a sterile account, as there's a very personal look into his feelings in what he's writing. We get excited along with him as he tells us some new tidbit he's discovered about Roseanne, just as we feel sad and hurt when he's talking about his wife. In fact, of the two, it seems that Roseanne's account is the more objective and disconnected emotionally. As if she were the one looking at the facts, much like a doctor would. And yet, we also don't feel Roseanne is totally detached here. Barry is also a poet, but that doesn't mean that the language here is flowery. Instead, he uses the simplicity of his words to evoke the emotions and reactions of his characters.
All told, this is a really lovely novel, with vivid characters and an interesting story line which uses a carefully structured mechanic of two first-person accounts to allow us both inside the characters as well as to observe the outside with them. What's more, within these two stories is a connection which Barry leads up to and reveals all along the way, like a mystery novel. This makes "The Secret Scripture" all the more readable and fascinating. I cannot find any fault with this book with the tiny exception of perhaps it was a touch too smooth, but even that can't make me take a star way from my rating and I've decided it deserves a full five stars out of five and I highly recommend it.
Davida Chazan © June, 2011
This is available new from Amazon for £4.55 or through their marketplace from £0.01 in Paperback: 312 pages, Publisher: Faber and Faber; First Paperback Edition edition (29 Jan 2009), ISBN-10: 9780571215294, ISBN-13: 978-0571215294, ASIN: 0571215297.
The Secret Scripture was recommended to me by a friend and won the Costa Book Awards main prize in 2008.
It tells the story of Roseanne but in two different ways.
Essentially Roseanne is reaching her 100th birthday in a psychiatric hospital in Ireland. She has been there for many decades and fearing that her last days are upon her she begins to write down her life story, that is her life before she arrived at this hospital. She writes down about her family, particularly her father who is intrinsically linked to a lot of tragedy in Sligo where she grew up. On blossoming into womanhood she finds herself exceptionally vulnerable to the advances and prejudices of the time, politics and the men around her - a path that will lead her to this hospital bed.
Alongside this we meet the hospital's psychiatrist Dr Grene. Grene has his own demons and tragedy in his personal life. When it is announced that the hospital is to be shut down and demolished he is tasked with establishing the personal histories of his patients, many of whom like Roseanne have been there for decades with no real indication of why they were placed there in the first place as those who would know are long dead and the files are no longer present or difficult to find.
He takes a particular interest in Roseanne, particularly due to the fact that he suspect s that there are secrets and a mystery to be uncovered. He is unaware that she is is secretly writing down her lifestory for posterity and she is unforthcoming verbally with information and so begins his own investigation.
I have to say that this is a very interesting novel which stays with you after reading. It is beautifully and passionately written and really atmospheric. A troubled and poor 1930's rural Ireland is very well portrayed as is the injustices that Roseanne faces as a woman in a time of little money, political turmoil , high morals and where the church reigns supreme.
There are some shocking and very tragic events which are written about in such a matter-of-fact way through Roseanne's jaded voice that I had to go back a couple of times to check that what happened was what I really thought they had happened because they are so horrific!
The dual way in which Roseanne's story is told is probably the most interesting element of the book. We get quite a way into Roseanne's recollection before we learn of Grene's findings. That is, there is the obvious conflict that you would get from a person's recollection versus written records of events of that time, alongside the notion of the unreliable narrator. When you throw into the mix, the fact that those who have produced the only official records of Roseanne's history may also not be trusted you have quite a complex plot developing. However, it never feels overboiled or confusing, rather it trusts the reader to firstly take Roseanne's story at face value, and then question it back and forth as more information becomes available, well at least up to a point.
Unfortunately, the long lasting impact of the book is somewhat lessened by a silly plot twist at the end. In essence, I should have perhaps have guessed it before I did - looking back there aren't so much hints to it as there are flashing neon signs, but I guess I was wrapped up in the engrossing writing and the fact that I trusted the author to not take liberties with the story that he had so wonderfully painted that I did not expect such an obvious and glaring plot device to be used. It is a shame really as there is enough suspense and intrigue here that the author did not need to resort to it. It is as though Barry had perhaps lost confidence in how to end the story and was worried about leaving stones unturned, as it is he should not have worried as it is the loose ends that make this story so intriguing.
However, for the most part this is a very engrossing and involving story that I would not hesitate in recommending for a good read.
My b.f brought me this book as he knows how much I enjoy reading, it was a book which was suggested to him by the store owner. I have to admit I have never heard of the author and therefore was a bit sceptical about it, but decided to read the book without reading any reviews.
As a young woman, Roseanne McNulty was one of the most beautiful and beguiling girls in County Sligo, Ireland. Now, as her hundredth year draws near, she is a patient at Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital, and she decides to record the events of her life.
As Roseanne revisits her past, hiding the manuscript beneath the floorboards in her bedroom, she learns that Roscommon Hospital will be closed in a few months and that her caregiver, Dr. Grene, has been asked to evaluate the patients and decide if they can return to society. Roseanne is of particular interest to Dr. Grene, and as he researches her case he discovers a document written by a local priest that tells a very different story of Roseanne's life than what she recalls. As doctor and patient attempt to understand each other, they begin to uncover long-buried secrets about themselves.
At first when I started to read the book I did find it hard to relate and to keep following the story, but I am glad that I kept reading. I found the characters grow on you wonderfully and as the reader realise the love, pain and loss and how you can miss the most important thing in the world even thought it's right under your nose.
However I did find it easier to just read it in few sittings rather then keep stopping and starting, you need to dedicate some time to reading the book.
I found this book to be an epic story of love, betrayal and unavoidable tragedy. No wonder the book was up for a Booker Prize, it's a shame it didn't win.
The book has 320 pages.
The Secret Scripture
320pp, Faber & Faber
£7.99 paperback / £3.84 Amazon.co.uk
An English teacher once suggested to me that the definition of a good book is one where you want to know what happens to the characters after the story ends. While that is not exactly true of Sebastian Barry's novel "The Secret Scripture" - I was rather bemused that it had been a Booker nominee to be honest - the nature of the story certainly left a considerable impression on me after I finished reading it, and I did spend quite some time thinking about the characters and the setting of the story. The themes and histories the book visits are certainly not new territory to Irish writers of either fiction or memoir, but this book seems to bring a new voice on them, presenting things that have become less shocking from their familiarity in a way where they can again have the power to move and appal the reader. While not a great novel in my opinion, that ability to shine a light on complex and often unpalatable parts of history is perhaps reason enough to read this book.
There are two first person narratives in "The Secret Scripture", each trying in their way to make sense of both their own past and that of their country by writing a private testimonial. Via the tried-and-tested dramatic device of patient and doctor, we experience the gradually unfolding stories of Roseanne McNulty, a forgotten centenarian confined to Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital, and Dr Grene, a psychiatrist in charge of the crumbling Victorian institution trying to find out if the many older inmates in his care should be released or moved on before it is demolished entirely. Dr Grene is the person who knows Roseanne better than anyone, and even he knows little about her, only making the time to try to get to know her better when he come to assess her for release or relocation - it quickly becomes apparent, however, that she has been in the institution for so long that no-one can remember why she was admitted in the first place. Roseanne is curiously taciturn about this point, although notes to herself that, "I am completely alone. There is no one in the world that knows me outside of this place, all my own people, the few farthings of them that once were, my little wren of a mother ... they are all gone now... I am only a thing left over, a remnant woman...". We are therefore presented with two secret scriptures, although it is Roseanne's that is by far the more interesting, starting from her childhood as the only child of Presbyterian parents living in Sligo, a childhood that is as idyllic to her as it is strange to us, and gradually building up towards the present. She fondly remembers her father, a man who is largely respected by the local community - sufficiently so to hold the important post of keeper of the town cemetery - even as his religion largely puts him at arm's length from the rest of the town. But fate will not let their contentment be. When one evening, as Roseanne is visiting her father after school, sees a group of irregular (anti Anglo-Irish Treaty) soldiers break into the graveyard in an attempt to secretly bury their dead comrade, the consequences play out for the rest of all their lives. Dr Grene's journal, on the other hand, shows us a different sort of turbulence as he struggles to make sense of what has happened in his marriage and how the demolition of the hospital will take his life's work away from him.
The story alternates between the two perspectives of Roseanne and Dr Grene, an old-fashioned technique that mixes the present with the past, and gives us two perspectives on both. At first this seems a stilted and artificial approach that I found hard to take in; it is only around a third of the way into the novel that I felt it really started to work well and build up some momentum that could truly absorb and interest the reader. From there on in, it just got better and better for me as the narrative became increasingly compelling and I grew addicted to the story, even as I could see it drawing horribly towards the inevitable conclusion. That said, I found Dr Grene's voice to be a major weak spot in the novel as a whole. Even as I could see his role and importance in the finale coming a mile off, I felt that in all but the last couple of chapters a lot of his reflections and thoughts are a hindrance to the story, which is ultimately about Roseanne, rather than something that progresses it. To counter this, Barry gives Dr Grene a dramatic revelation of his own, but it is too late, too neat, too obvious a choice - indeed one I saw a long way off and hoped the author would avoid as being too preposterous for something that should pass as literary fiction - but I don't think it takes too much away from the book overall, however much I inwardly winced at the time.
The plot may strain in places, but the prose remains good quality. Roseanne writes in language that is both poetic and colloquial as she tried to untangle a century of memories, often noting asides and self-corrections as she attempts to make sense of all she has seen, done and said in her long life. Roseanne's patchwork of memories becomes "history", according to her own definition a "fabulous arrangement of surmises and guesses held up as a banner against the assault of withering truth". But it also becomes the eponymous "scripture": a sacred text of her forgotten life, of a lost corner of history. Indeed, there is something almost spiritual in Roseanne's brave reverence for life, in her willingness to find good in the midst of cruelty, prejudice and ignorance. This being an Irish novel of remembering, these qualities exist in an awful abundance - more often than not in the fearsome form of Father Gaunt, a man so appropriately named he could be straight out of a Dickens novel.
Barry ultimately tells us a story of Irish strife, the fallibility of history, and how truth is about perspective rather than being an absolute. These last two points in particular I found fascinating, as I read and compared very different accounts of key events and tried to decide for myself what I thought had happened and why these differences persisted through time. The Irish civil war creeps over the characters like an evil fog, but Barry remains completely neutral in his account, being more interested in the effects of events on ordinary people's lives, and how unrighted wrongs live on and poison future generations than on which side was in the right at the time things first happened. While someone with a good knowledge of Ireland and her history will doubtless be able to appreciate the story more, this shouldn't put off the interested reader with limited background knowledge. "The Secret Scripture" features some good characters and beautiful writing, and while it is arguably a tad more complex that need be and there are touches of melodrama in places, these points aren't enough to detract from this novel overall. It may not be the great book it sets out to be, but that doesn't mean it isn't a good book, all things considered.
This book is one of my favourite books I have read all year and I hope my review will do it justice.
The secret Scripture is written by Sebastian Barry, author o A Long Long Way, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He lives in Ireland and his knowledge of the Land and History shines through in his writing.
The secret Scripture tells the story of Roseanne McNulty who could be nearly 100years old but nobody is that sure. Roseanne lives in the Roscommon Mental Health Hospital as a patient and she has spent the best part of her adult life living there, why; nobody is sure. The Hospital faces an uncertain future as it faces closure and she has a good relationship with her psychiatrist Dr. Grene. The story is told through respective journals, one by Roseanne in 1930's Sligo, this story is able to represent an alternative to the secret history of Ireland. The other story is by Dr. Grene mourning his wife; which leads to a complication and intensity of the relationship between Roseanne and her psychiatrist.
The story in summary is a tale of life blighted by mistreatment and ignorance, but marked by love and passion and hope.
The first thing i loved about this book was Barry's writing style. His metaphors and imagery and natural way with words really shines through in his writing. His ability to do all these things adds to the wonderful descriptions and he creates Sligo in your mind. His creation of such close, tense relationships stands him in good stead for the plot that he uncoils, of a journey of a woman, and interwoven in her journey are the problems that Ireland faced. The uncertain civil wars, the Black 'n' Tans, and the strict morals that the people aboded by.
That leads me onto the second thing i loved about the book was the interwoven of history into the book. Those with an interest in Irish history and fiction will find this book interesting at the very least. I adored it partly because i knew the area well but also because of the history that it contained.
The book may have been rather hard to get into at first but once the basic facts had been grasped I became hooked on the characters treatment and her journey through life. The language of the book, I found to be, very easy to follow and thoroughly enjoyed the book.
Barry created some memorable characters, Roseanne herself, but also a Catholic Priest and Mother, who are both sinister and loving at the same time.
With the story being told through Roseanne McNulty's perspective Barry has created a brilliant storytelling figure, as Frank McGuinness say, "Most haunting lament for loss, echoing through the ages...Barry's fiction is unique and it is magnificent"
I could not agree more.
The one niggle I had with the book may have been the ending of the book, bit of a cliche, but I forgive him. The ending was interesting if a bit melodramatic.
I imagine this book would be liked if you have read other Barry books. Also I think that this book is quite similar to The Outcast by Sadie Jones, so if you were a massive fan of that book this one should be given a try.
I really enjoyed this read, and if you like great fiction, have an interest in Ireland and love a good novel carrying a secret I am sure this book is for you.
I just wish that this book would be highlighted so more people would be able to appreciate this great author.
I finished the book and have put every other Sebastian Barry book on my wish list!
The book is 300pages long in hardback; www.amazon.co.uk for the best prices!(or wait till its out in paperback!)