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February 19, 2024

The Secret Scripture: Book Review

By Wendy Robards

The Secret Scripture, by Sebastian Barry.

Sligo made me and Sligo undid me, but then I should have given up much sooner than I did being made or undone by human towns, and looked to myself alone. The terror and hurt in my story happened because when I was young I thought others were the authors of my fortune or misfortune; 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. - from The Secret Scripture, page 3-4 -

Sebastian Barry's fourth novel opens in an Irish mental hospital with the voice of Roseanne McNulty who, in the 100th year of her life, has decided to write her memoir and hide it beneath the floorboards of her room. As Roseanne revisits the past, the Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital is being dismantled due to safety concerns. Roseanne's psychiatrist Dr. Grene is attempting to evaluate the patients to determine if they can be set free, or must be re-committed in the new hospital. The story alternates between Roseanne's memories of her past and Dr. Grene's written thoughts in the present. As the novel progresses, the mystery of Roseanne's life unfolds and Dr. Grene uncovers a secret in his own life.

Barry's novel covers the period of the Irish Civil War (1922-23), as well as WWII and is steeped in the history of the Catholic Church and the politics of Ireland. There is a magical quality to the novel with rich and mysterious characters (including a priest who plays a large role in Roseanne's life).

Early on, the reader becomes aware of discrepancies in Roseanne's memories and part of the tension in the novel is one of separating the truth from fantasy. What is real and what is false?

For history as far as I can see is not the arrangement of what happens, in sequence and in truth, but a fabulous arrangement of surmises and guesses held up as a banner against the assault of withering truth. - from The Secret Scripture, page 55 -

But I am beginning to wonder strongly what is the nature of history. Is it only memory in decent sentences, and if so, how reliable is it? I would suggest, not very. And that therefore most truth and fact offered by these syntactical means is treacherous and unreliable. - from The Secret Scripture, page 293 -

Barry's writing is simply gorgeous. Lyrical and descriptive, the reader can hear the lilt of the Irish voices and see the desolate countryside of Ireland.

Always the deluge of rain falling on Sligo, falling on the streets big and little, making the houses shiver and huddle like people at a football match. Falling fantastically, in enormous amounts, the contents of a hundred rivers. And the river itself, the Garravoge, swelling up, the beautiful swans taken by surprise, riding the torrent, being swept down under the bridge and reappearing the other side like unsuccessful suicides, their mysterious eyes shocked and black, their mysterious grace unassailed. How savage swans are even in their famous beauty. And the rain falling also on the pavements outside the Cafe Cairo, as I tugged at the boilers and the machines, and gazed out through the fuggy windows with burning eyes. - from The Secret Scripture, page 125 -

The Secret Scripture is a novel about love and betrayal, truth and fantasy, sin and redemption ... an intimate look at the history and religious politics of Ireland as it collides with one woman's life. Barry is the consummate story-teller, weaving his fantastical account beautifully and creating a truly memorable character for literary fiction lovers.

Highly recommended.

Four and a half stars out of five.

Catch all of Wendy Robard's reviews in her fabulous blog, "Caribousmom".


Article © Wendy Robards. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-12-15
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