Sebastian Barry – The Secret Scripture


Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2008, and winner of the Costa Award 2008, The Secret Scripture explores the lives of both, Dr. Grene (a psychiatrist) and his centerian patient, Roseanne, as both characters reflect on their life from their youngest days, to where are they at this point in time.

Roseanne McNulty has enjoyed the comforts of the Roscommon Mental Hospital for more decades than she can remember. However, the hospital is about to be demolished, and Dr. Grene is re-assessing his patients, to see who are free to roam the outside world, and who need to go through the pains of moving hospitals.

When Dr. Grene breaks the news to her, and says he’ll need to revisit her admission to the hospital, she starts reflecting on her life, from her earliest memories, and jots them down, addressing the reader of the ‘scripture’. However, she’s reluctant to share her memories with her doctor, and keeps the scriptures hidden from the hospital staff, by keeping it under a loose floorboard. Calling herself a cailleach (the old crone of stories, the wise woman, and sometimes a kind of witch), Roseanne tries to keep her writing as accurate as possible, but, as she admits

No one has the monopoly on truth, not even myself.

At the same time, Dr. Grene is dealing with the pains of his personal life, with the estrangement of his wife, despite living in the same house, followed by her death.

We are not wolves, but lambs astonished in the margins of the fields by sunlight and summer. She lost her world, Martha. And I lost mine. No doubt it was well deserved. Whatever her husband suffered was not, and whatever Bet suffered I know for a certainty was not.

Because faithfulness is not a human question, but a divine one.

As Dr. Grene tries finding out more about Roseanne, while battling his own problems, the book progresses into a beautiful piece, with some incredible memories, and some terribly sad ones (and some disturbing ones). The reader cannot help but empathize with both characters, as they struggle to figure out how they got to where they are: from Roseanne’s early childhood memories and the silence of her mother, to her father’s unfortunate death, to her marriage with Tom McNulty which was followed by an annulment, to the birth of her child, which was taken away from her – a lot of which boiled down to her being Presbyterian. She acknowledges her loneliness, at various stages of her life, and the reader cannot help but feel a tug in their heart as they read her story.

How I wished suddenly for my own mother to seek for me, so fiercely, so sweatingly, to find me again on the lost strand of the world, to rescue me, to recruit others for my rescue, to bring me again to her breast, as that distant mother so obviously ached ached to do with the happy creature in my arms.

With almost poetic writing, Barry brings to life a realistic Ireland during the 1922 civil war, where there’s the smell of death and betrayal; where idealism is being compromised, and, innocence lost; where the only thing that matters is being on the side of power, and surviving. The characters are incredibly well-drawn, specially that of Fr. Gaunt – a character I grew to hate as the book progressed, for it was he who seemed to be making life very difficult for Roseanne, just because she did not follow his instructions.

Both, the beauty and the problem of the book lies in the first person narration of Roseanne and Dr. Grene, as they both write in their respective journals. It is easy for the reader to lose track of whose reflections they are reading, and as the stories come together, it gets confusing… specially as, Barry also highlights the meetings between the various characters in the present-day (i.e. the whole book is not written in a reflective manner).

I really enjoyed the book, and Barry’s writing flows so lyrically that it makes this a very pleasant reading experience. You feel like the characters are in front of you telling you their stories, and you can actually see all the emotions that must be flowing through them at each moment.

Rating: 4

4 Responses to “Sebastian Barry – The Secret Scripture”

  1. This one is high on my TBR list too! I’m pleased you enjoyed it.

    PS – You seem to have had a problem with your feed. Your last 4 posts have just appeared together in my google reader. At least it is working now.

    • 2 uncertainprinciples

      Hope you do, too.

      I did write four posts in one go last night, which might explain it…… If that’s not the case, please let me know, and I’ll have a look.

  2. 3 jo

    I really enjoyed this. And I hated Fr. Gaunt too! I thought it was heartbreaking and disturbing. But I did think the end was slightly too convenient, even if it was set up well throughout the book.

    • 4 uncertainprinciples

      You’re right. You could predict the ending about half-way through the book. And Fr. Gaunt – Argh! So despicable.

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