The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

‘I did not know that a person could hold up a wall made of imaginary bricks and mortar against the horrors and cruel, dark tricks of time that assail us, and be the author therefore of themselves.’

So writes Roseanne McNulty, a centenarian patient in Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital, as she secretly puts pen to paper and sets down her life story.

The Secret Scripture was Costa Book of the Year in 2008.  The old-lady-in-an-asylum subject didn’t much grab me, I’ll admit (to be honest, it struck me as worthy but dull) but thank goodness I read it all the same because I was hooked from the first page.  In fact chapter one is so good it could serve as a model for would-be writers. Find a distinctive voice – tick; establish a sense of place – tick; build suspense – tick; locate the character – tick; and set up the theme – tick.  Barry manages to do it all, and more, within the first couple of pages.

Rosanne’s life is shaped by political and religious forces she barely registers, much less understands.  She is the only child of a Presbyterian father and a Plymouth Brethren mother, growing up in predominantly Catholic Sligo in the early twentieth century, and the violence of the period breaks into her account like the tips of so many icebergs – the Easter Rising, the First World War, the Irish War of Independence, the special position of the Catholic Church in the Free State’s Constitution, the rise of Fascism in Europe, the Second World War. It is against this backdrop that Rosanne’s own turbulent history unfolds.

The counterpoise to Rosanne’s ‘brittle and honest-minded’ account is the narrative of Dr Grene, the hospital’s senior psychiatrist. Dr Grene, investigating the reason for Rosanne’s committal to assess her suitability for being put back into the community preparatory to the hospital closing, unearths the deposition of the ‘all knowing, stern minded, and entirely unforgiving priest’ Father Gaunt.  As Rosanne’s ‘Testimony of Herself’ interweaves with Dr Grene’s ‘Commonplace Book’ alternative, equally compelling, versions of her story emerge.  With Doctor Greene, we are prompted to question the nature of truth and whether truth is something ‘above and beyond the actual verity of the ‘facts’.’

I can’t recall many books I’d have gladly begun reading all over again the instant I’d finished, but this is definitely one of them.  The narrative is gripping, the prose is beautiful, and the scope is deftly handled. If I have one negative comment it is that the plot comes together a little too neatly for my taste (I prefer ‘messier’ endings) but it isn’t mawkish or manipulative so this is really a minor quibble.  The Secret Scripture is the first Sebastian Barry novel I’ve read; it certainly won’t be the last.

Overall rating:   *** highly recommended

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