Newest Review: ... if she was justly committed all those years ago. As their relationship gradually unfolds we also learn a little about Dr Grene and his ... more
Prisoner of her own memories
The Secret Scripture - Sebastian Barry
Member Name: dee778
The Secret Scripture - Sebastian Barry
Date: 30/06/12, updated on 01/07/12 (89 review reads)
Advantages: Beautiful writing, engrossing plot
Disadvantages: Has been criticised by some for having a weak ending
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.
Summary: A book that I will remember for years