The Secret Scripture: A Novel by Sebastian Barry

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An epic story of family, love, and unavoidable tragedy from the two-time Man Booker Prize finalist

Sebastian Barry 's novels have been hugely admired by readers and critics, and in 2005 his novel A Long Long Way was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. In The Secret Scripture, Barry revisits County Sligo, Ireland, the setting for his previous three books, to tell the unforgettable story of Roseanne McNulty. Once one of the most beguiling women in Sligo, she is now a resident of Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital and nearing her hundredth year. Set against an Ireland besieged by conflict, The Secret Scripture is an engrossing tale of one woman's life, and a vivid reminder of the stranglehold that the Catholic church had on individuals throughout much of the twentieth century.

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Reviews Around The Web

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Amazon.com: The Secret Scripture: A Novel (9780143115694 ...

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This item: The Secret Scripture: A Novel by Sebastian Barry ... *Starred Review* From the first page, Barry's novel sweeps along like the Garravogue River ...

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Review: The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry | Books | The Guardian

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May 24, 2008 ... This novel of crippled perspectives and ducked responsibilities comments on his 1998 .... Review: The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry <</p>

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ReadingGroupGuides.com - The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

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Read a Review on Bookreporter.com. Reading Group Guide. The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry List Price: $15.00.

User Reviews

Secrets buried; secrets unearthed

One of my favorite types of novels is the kind that tells a story from multiple viewpoints. This might be through letters, diaries, or narratives from different characters. The Victorian novelist Wilkie Collins was especially adept at this type of novel: his novels The Woman In White and The Moonstone are classics of the multiple viewpoint novel.

Recently I read another novel that makes wonderful use of multiple viewpoint: The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry. In this novel Barry lets the story slowly and painstakingly uncoil, through the memories and reflections, joys and sorrows of two people: Roseanne (nee Clear) McNulty, a one hundred year old woman who has been an inmate in a mental institution for decades, and Dr. Grene the aging psychiatrist who has supervised her treatment for many of those years.

Roseanne has kept a secret journal hidden under the floorboards of her dreary room for most of the years of her confinement, a kind of safety net for keeping her sanity and her identity from eroding away entirely. Dr. Grene uses his notebook to ponder his deteriorating relationship with his wife and at times to contemplate Roseanne and speculate on her long and arduous life.

As the book opens, the Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital is about to be demolished, and the doctors are told to release as many inmates as possible into society where they can be "mainstreamed". Understandably, Dr. Grene is appalled to think that someone as old and frail as Roseanne, who has been removed from society most of her adult life, should be expected to fend for herself in the world once again. He attempts to learn as much as he can about her past, both by asking her directly and by searching out old, lost records regarding her initial commitment to a Sligo asylum. What he uncovers fills him with horror and pity for the young woman who was once Roseanne Clear, the most beautiful woman in Sligo.

Roseanne's story is set against the time of civil war and violence in Ireland around the time of World War I, known by the Irish simply as "The Troubles". Roseanne and her father were both caught up in The Troubles, and both paid severely for offenses they never committed, or merely for being, quite literally, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Dr. Grene tries to understand how things could have gone so irrevocably astray in Roseanne's life, while at the same time trying to understand the failures of his own seemingly sterile existence. In particular he is moved to compassion at the thought of Roseanne's dead child whom she lost just before she was forcibly committed to the asylum in Sligo.

The reign of the Catholic church over the lives of Irish men and women was nearly absolute throughout the period of Roseanne's youth. Both she and her father suffered from the church's unchecked power. The mystery of Roseanne's incarceration is directly linked to the Catholic priest who believed her to be debased and sinful; could the fate of her child also be linked to the long arm of the Church?

The Secret Scripture is full of secrets, and there is a surprise at the end that I, for one, certainly did not see coming! But you will find no "spoiler" here; read this powerful novel and discover the stunning secret for yourself.

Impromptu history

In The Secret Scripture, Sebastian Barry tells a story set in Ireland. As is often the case, this story set in Ireland is very much a story of Ireland, as much describing a nation and a setting as a personal history. But it seems that at least one aspect of the country's painful relationship with its competing churches has changed in Sacred Scriptures. Gone is the assumption of grace applied unthinkingly by Catholics to their side of the divide. And reason for its removal is the church's attitude towards women, marriage and motherhood. In Secret Scriptures these axes of divide intersect to create a story that is effectively a modern virgin birth. It thus creates and presents a Madonna who, in her own way, must be kept above and apart from other women, other people.

Late in the book Dr Grene, whose journal forms a large part of the narrative, asks this question: "Is not most history written in a sort of wayward sincerity?" Recollection thus remains sincere, but its waywardness perhaps lies in its selectivity, its particularity. History, after all, is an interpretation of events, not merely a listing, and interpretation always has a point of view. When, however, one's knowledge of the past is at best patchy and at worst inaccurate, it becomes a new world to be discovered, revealed perhaps by chance, perhaps by design. Dr Grene also writes, "The one thing that is fatal in the reading of an impromptu history is wrongful desire for accuracy." In the end, it is Dr Grene's pursuit of such an impromptu history that reveals a stunning truth, a truth that can only be uncovered precisely because of the accuracy, the diligence that others invested in one person's history.

The impromptu history that Dr Grene reads is that of Secret Scripture's central character, Roseanne McNulty, née Clear. She is a hundred years old and has, for most of her adult life, been confined within the walls of a mental hospital. Her place of repose is to close and be demolished. Dr Grene is to oversee its demise. Roseanne has decided to write her life story.

If Te Secret Scripture has a weakness, then it has a double weakness. Overall, the plot might come too close to the sentimental for some readers. For others, it will be the book's saving grace. Secondly, Roseanne Clear, frail at a hundred years of age, might be an unlikely figure to write such a succinct, coherent and vivid account of events that happened almost eighty years before. Again we must suspend some belief here, but that is easily done because her recollections are both engaging and credible. They would have been more so if, as impromptu history, they were less concerned with improbable detail. It's not the events that might be questionable, merely the accuracy of their recollection. But after all, that detail might just be illusory.

There was a history in the family, we are told, a history of illness and instability and, perhaps, a history of another, less mentionable, affliction of women. But in the end none of these are rare. It's their public acknowledgement or admission that's unusual.

Life and its institutions treat Roseanne Clear badly, but no differently from others identified as afflicted with her condition. She is effectively branded insane by a socially-constructed righteousness that now seems to have lost all of its previously unquestioned authority. She seems to have few regrets, however, except, of course, for a life that may not have been lived. The life in question did, in fact, live, and it became something that reinterpreted Roseanne's entire existence.

Sacred Scripture is a beautiful book. It has its flaws, but the immediacy of its subject and the poignancy of its dénouement make it both enthralling and surprising.

The costs of repression

Continuing the fictional elaborations of his own family's facts, Barry tells of Irish repression movingly in this densely written but often poetic novel. Following "The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty," Roseanne Clear McNulty enters the saga around the same time, the Irish Civil War following partial independence in the early 1920s. After a tragic event in Sligo town during the internecine war brings unwarranted scorn upon her Presbyterian father, Roseanne must grow up isolated from defenders, increasingly compromised by the scrutiny of censorious Fr. Gaunt.

What transpires crosses over with the story of Eneas, and while the details will be left for you to learn, this narrative tells a rather familiar story of loss and yearning effectively, renewing by the beauty of its ruminative style a landscape harsh and barren, within the lives of men and women and especially those, like Roseanne, confined as was her mother to an asylum for her own attempts to break free of the constraints of early 20c Catholic-ruled Ireland.

Still, no story set here can be all bleak. She writes of her native city: "A hot Irish day is such a miracle we become mad foreigners in a twinkle. The rain drives everything indoors and history with it. There is a lovely lack of anything on a hot deay, and because our world in its inner truth is so wet, the surprised greens of the fields and hills seem to burn with a sort of bewilderment, a wonderment. The land looks lovely to itself, and the girls and boys along the strand are painted into the tawny yellows and the blues and the greens of the sea, also burning, burning. Or so it seemed to me. The whole town seemed to be there, everything suffering the same brushstrokes of the heat, everything joining and melding." (142)

One caveat: the depth with which Roseanne writes down her story in such rich prose does tend to blend too much with the doctor's own diary's moods, and Barry for both seems to fall into an overly rich, and rather too-studied, prose style that can slow the pace of the narrative dramatically. Some readers may like to linger in its shallows, but others may want the plot to quicken.

Later, however, the madness with which daughter as mother is diagnosed with and confined by hints at deeper suffering. Her story intersperses with Dr. Grene who researches the case of this hundred-year-old inmate at Roscommon's asylum. Roseanne tells him: "I do remember terrible dark things, and loss, and noise, but it is like one of those terrible dark pictures that hang in churches, God knows why, because you cannot see a thing in them." The doctor tells her "that is a beautiful description of traumatic memory." (101)

The doctor, "the biggest agnostic in Ireland," struggles with his own loss, and seeks in Roseanne to solve her mystery, and perhaps his. "But we are never old to ourselves. That is because at the close of day the ship we sail in is the soul, not the body." (177) He too seeks understanding of death and loss, as does Roseanne. Betrayals can be eased by desires to do right by others. "We like to characterise humanity as savage, lustful, and basic, but that is to make strangers of everyone. We are not wolves, but lambs astonished in the margins of the fields by sunlight and summer." (178)

I admit the betrayal that De. Grene confesses at this point appeared very minor and quite forgivable, but in the context of his great loss recollected, it may loom much larger in his guilty mind. Barry seeks to examine precisely this conflict between what we are accused of, by ourselves or others, and what can and should and must be forgiven and restored. In a time of cruelty for causes and utter suppression of desire, Roseanne represents a frail cry of flawed but innocent humanity.

There aren't facile solutions for men and women caught in compromise in a century of clerical domination and political oppression. The wonder of Irish scenery conflicts with its terrors, and its inhabitants are caught within both splendid days and terrible nights. After decades, how much of what transpired can only be recreated partially by Dr. Grene. "The one thing that is fatal in the reading of impromptu history is a wrongful desire for accuracy. There is no such thing." (279)

(P.S. I have also reviewed "The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty" and Barry's "A Long Long Way," a harrowing novel of WWI through an Irish soldier's eyes, on Amazon.)

Beautiful Though Tragic Story

I seem to have read quite a few of books recently that are at least partially set in Ireland. There are Booker winners The Gathering and The Sea as well as a Canadian book, The Law of Dreams. The current book I'm reading is Let The Great World Spin. All of them certainly contain a lot of tragedy as does The Secret Scripture.

I found the first part of the book to be a little slow and I certainly thought that I was into another typical Irish Tragedy. While The Secret Scripture could certainly be called an Irish tragedy, there's a lot more to it than that.

I can only give a skeleton of the plotline as connections and twists that are revealed as the book proceeds are a key element of it. The other very prominent theme is the fallibility of memory and what do we remember vs. what happened. I definitely appreciated the book more upon reflection after I finished than I did while reading it.

The basic plot is that a woman is in a mental care facility and has been there for many years. Her name is Rosanne McNulty and she is somewhere around 100 years old. She's been in the facility for more than half a century. The hospital is being shut down as it's falling apart. Some patients will be moved to a new, smaller place and some will have to re-enter society. A psychologist, Dr. Grene who has run the facility for many years spends a lot of time with Rosanne to determine what the appropriate action is for her. The book is written in alternating entries from her diary or account of her life and his diary as to what's occurring.

Through Rosanne, we slowly learn about her life and the sequence of events that have led her to where she is. The psychologist is fsacinated by her though he doesn't quite know why.

A lot of the novel is dedicated to Rosanne and her struggles growing up throughout the 20th century in Ireland especially as a protestant. It is a very beautiful, well written story and is laced with tragedy. It is difficult not to be angry with the all powerful and opressive effect of some of the Roman Catholic clergy. One priest in particular plays a large role in derailing Rosanne's life.

There are plot twists that at first seem improbable but when explained become more reasonable.

I liked the book while I read it though it had some very slow parts. Once all was revealed and I reflected on the story and the themes, it went up in my estimation.

I definitely recommend it and encourage other readers to wait until the end to pass judgement.

Couldn't put it down.....

My sister-in-law recommended that I read this book. WOW, I read it in a day. Couldn't put it down.

This is a masterful story with exquisite use of prose.

Might appeal more to an Irish reader, but true lovers of fiction will enjoy much.

 

 
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