Monday, April 4, 2011

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

The Secret Scripture: A NovelThe Secret Scripture is one of the books I brought home with me from Ireland.  It was recommended by a bookseller that shared my enthusiasm for Joseph O'Connor's Star of the Sea.  I went into the shop to find a copy of his Ghost Light (Dublin's One City, One Book choice, being read this month) and ended up asking her for other recommendations.

The synopsis the bookseller gave me was intriguing.  All she told me was that it was a book about Ireland's unfortunate tendency, in the past, to commit women to insane asylums for moral issues and convenience rather than any mental instability.

This is a book told from two points of view.  The first is Roseanne's: as she approaches 100 years of age she reflects on the early years of her life: those before her long years spent in an asylum, those that shed light on the things that determined the fate of her life.  The second is Dr. Grene's, the hospital's psychiatrist, who is tasked with deciding whether any of the residents are suited for life outside, and who finds himself intrigued with Roseanne's story.

And who can blame him?  The main events in Roseanne's life take place against the backdrop of the World Wars, and more immediately significant: Easter Rising in 1916, War of Independence in 1919-1921, and the Irish Civil War in 1922-1923.  Roseanne grows up in Sligo, and the words that Sebastian Barry uses to describe  her perceptions of this place are magical.

The prose strolls through memory, collecting pictures and stories as if they were flowers in a garden, presenting them for inspection and contemplation.  Once I slowed myself enough to listen to the language, I found that it moved rather quickly.  The plot (to me) seemed in danger of being rather sensational--I was a little afraid that it might put every sordid detail in so bright a light that it would no longer seem real--but what I found were characters so lifelike that it was more like uncovering your family's hidden secrets than reading a novel.  The simplicity and quietness in which details were revealed had more impact on me than they would have if they were pumped up and dramatized.  Sometimes a humble acceptance of misfortunes makes more of an impression than a volley of protests.

As a side note, I was scrolling through my Amazon wishlist after returning home from Ireland, and I was shocked to discover that I'd put this book on there back in August 2010.  Here I'd thought that I'd never heard of it before, when I obviously had.  It must have been a book blogger recommendation, which makes me excited to read the other books I've placed on my wishlist based on blogger rec's.  You all haven't steered me wrong yet!

Title: The Secret Scripture
Author: Sebastian Barry
Pages: 312
Published: 2007 Faber and Faber (orig. 2006)
My Rating: 4.5 stars


  1. So I guess I should go rescue it from the shelf and finish it?

  2. I loved this book too. One of my favourite reads of last year. I think you have captured the essence of the story, and its appeal, beautifully in your review.

    I started reading another of his novels A Long Long Way, but didn't finish it. I think I will have to try it again. I also think The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty would be interesting too, as it features one of the characters from The Secrect Scripture.

  3. yes, fizzy, you should give it another go!

    Heidi, it was very good. It felt like more than a story, it felt real.

    Mel, The Wereabouts of Eneas McNulty sounds interesting to me too, sounds like a good way to tie two stories together without making them into a series. Were you able to predict the ending? It surprised me, but then I'm not so great at trying to figure out plot twists (I'd rather be surprised I guess.)


I'd love to hear what you have to say, leave a comment!