The true university these days is a collection of books.
-Thomas Carlyle

Sunday, 12 July 2009

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

I had seen this book reviewed around various blogs a few months ago so bought it on a 3 for 2 offer at Waterstones and took it away on holiday.
Set in Sligo in Ireland, an inmate at a Psychiatric Hospital, Roseanne McNulty, is nearly 100 years old and is their longest serving resident. Sectioned during the 1940s she has spent most of her life as a Psychiatric patient, but like many early inmates, the reasons for her admittance are vague and have little to do with any actual mental illnesses. Roseanne is writing her life story down and hiding it under the floorboards. She wants someone at some stage to know her story. At the same time Dr Grene is assessing all of his patients because the hospital is closing down. He becomes transfixed with finding out about Roseanne and also why she is there.
The chapters alternate between Roseannes accounts of her life, and Dr Grenes investigations. Sometimes these accounts clash as peoples memory and point of view provide different meanings to events. There are also some cover ups on documents so part of the intrigue is picking through these stories to find out what really happened.
The chapters dedicated to Roseanne are more lyrical, and also have a dream like quality that took a little longer to connect to. I do think that this illustrates an elderly lady who has been interred for most of her life successfully. I did like alternating between her and Dr Grene's voice, and I found both of them interesting.
Most of the other characters are explained through Roseanne's point of view, so we get a lot of information about her father, and a palpable feeling of dread surrounding the local priest. But there are others who remain 2 dimensional, her mother, her husband and his family, and even the young rebel she befriends and has more of an influence on her life than she realises. This didn't detract from the telling, but when I remember the story in my mind, these characters are faceless and I tried to examine whether this was deliberate and I think that maybe it is, to add distance to something that happened long ago.
I enjoyed the story and wanted to find out how all of the pieces fitted together. I cared about Roseanne and Dr Grene and found parts of it very moving and tremendously sad. There were a few teary eyed moments. I did guess part of the ending early on but there were some surprises where I had to put the book down I was so moved. Some readers have said they didn't like the ending but I found it tied everything together and was happy with it. I think my only reservation is that she didn't rebel more when certain restraints were inflicted upon her (I don't want to give anything away).
A lot of the books beauty lies in its descriptions, of people and of Sligo. Part of Roseannes fate is sealed by her beauty as a young woman, but her beauty comes as an old lady through her words and how she tells her story. This is a well told and highly moving story about a woman surviving and retelling her story during one of the many troubled parts of Irelands history and I recommend it with enthusiasm.
There is a reading guide to The Secret Scripture which you may find useful.


teabird said...

This one is a definite must for me - I seem to be in a rhythm lately of books about women past and women present, being linked by research or a diary or -

Nadia said...

I've heard great things about this book too! Its on my TBR list. Great post - it definitely sounds like an interesting read. Cheers!!

Leah said...

Thanks Teabird and Nadia, I do recommend it. It is a well written and interesting addition to any TBR pile.

Verbivore said...

I've seen this book around and wrote the title down on my list of books to look further into...but your review pushes it a bit further up the list. I think I would really enjoy this one!

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