Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 320 pages; 2009.
When I read Sebastian Barry’s 2005 Booker shortlisted novel A Long Long Way several summers ago I found it one of the most moving books I’d ever read. There was something about the story of an Irish lad caught between two wars that really resonated with me, and I promptly ordered my father a copy because I knew he’d enjoy the Great War element. Almost three years later I still find myself occasionally thinking about this story, always the sign of a great piece of fiction.
Then, last August, I acquired a copy of Barry’s 2008 Booker shortlisted novel The Secret Scripture. It languished on my bedside table unopened and unread for months, and even its triumph at the Costa Book Awards in January, where it won the Costa Book of the Year Award, didn’t spur me to pick it up. Then, on my recent trip to Ireland, I discovered a copy of it in the holiday cottage I was renting and felt it was no use putting it off any longer: I had to read it to see how it measured against my very high five-star opinion of A Long Long Way.
The Secret Scripture didn’t disappoint. It is a magnificent story about memory and the tricks our minds play on us, and how society has a habit of condemning the innocent to live lives of quiet desperation and unnecessary struggle.
The story is split between two narrators, Roseanne McNulty, possibly the oldest woman in Ireland who has been a patient at Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital since 1957, and Dr William Greene, the senior psychiatrist who is charged with determining which patients can be re-released into the community once the present building is demolished.
Dr Greene, an outsider (in the sense that he’s not Catholic) grieving over the death of his wife, spends a lot of time with Roseanne, whom he describes as “my old friend” and the “oldest person in this place”.
She has been a fixture, and not only represents the institution, but also, in a curious way, my own history, my own life.
During their sessions in which he assesses Roseanne’s suitability for discharge, he finds himself confessing things to her that he would normally keep quiet. Meanwhile, Roseanne gives little of herself away, preferring to make her confessions in a secret diary that she keeps hidden under the floorboards. It is these revealing diary extracts which make up her side of the narrative.
Eventually, over the course of the book, you learn of the joys and horrors of Roseanne’s life and how she came to be incarcerated in the asylum. But because she readily admits that everything she recalls “may not be real” and that she has “taken refuge in other impossible histories, in dreams, in fantasies” you’re never quite sure if she is a reliable narrator or not. Towards the end of the novel she confesses that her memories and her imaginings are “lying deeply in the same place” and that the process of excavating them is troublesome.
Dr Greene, who is not privy to Roseanne’s written confessional, has his own suspicions about her inconsistent memory, which he puts down to “tangled histories”:
Not only can I not get her story from herself, I have versions of her life that I think she would reject.
Eventually, these two diverse narrative threads, which dance around each other, meld together, culminating in a surprise ending, which is devastating in its impact.
Unfortunately — and this is where I tend to agree with the Costa judges who called it “a flawed novel” — this tightening of loose ends felt too contrived for my liking, too neat, too packaged. It didn’t help that I guessed the ending but had spent the last 50 or so pages convincing myself that I had it wrong, because surely Barry would leave in the ambiguities to allow the reader to come to their own conclusions about what really happened.
Does this matter though? No book is ever perfect and while The Secret Scripture might rely on two major coincidences for its climax to work, it does not detract from the highly emotional story told in such an effortless, beautiful way. And it certainly wouldn’t put me off recommending it to anyone looking for something exquisitely written, intelligent and moving.
If you liked this book, you might also like Salley Vickers’ The Other Side of You which treads similar territory in terms of narrative, content and style.
22 thoughts on “‘The Secret Scripture’ by Sebastian Barry”
I read “The Secret Scripture” recently, thought it was very fine. After reading a dud book of stories by Roddy Doyle called “The Deportees”, I vowed to read no more Irish authors this year. I’ve changed my vow to not read any Irish writers except Sebastian Barry. I have been completely captured by both of his latest novels.
I love Roddy Doyle but for some reason I have never been able to bring myself to read his latest offerings. I think I got put off by A Star Called Henry, which didn’t grab me in the same way as the Barrytown Trilogy, which I loved.
Have you read Barry’s The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty? I’ve had it in the queue forever but just never got around to it. Supposedly it features characters from The Secret Scripture, namely Roseanne’s brother-in-law.
Yes, I notice the recurrence of the name McNulty, I will want to read that novel also soon.
I read Roddy Doyle, totally enjoyed “The Commitments” and “The Van”. but for some reason “The Deportees” just hit me the wrong way. Dublin has become a cosmopolitan city, but so have many other cities in many other countries.
I just began The Secret Scripture this morning, and finds Roseanne’s narrative more intriguing—I want to know more of her story, and what happened that she was confined in the institution if she was within her mental faculty. Dr. Grene is digressing a lot and he’s not all that interesting, yet! I feel perusing this book slowly in order to not miss all the subtle insights.
I tried not to read the reviews of the book until now, but have heard that the ending might be what causes it to lose the Booker.
I thought Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha was brilliant. I also really liked the Paula Spencer books, but I have no desire to read any of the others, strange though it may seem.
I have wanted to read this book forever! I am finally up to number one on the waiting list at the library, so I am going to hold off reading your review in detail until after I read it!
I’ve read reviews where people have stated they’ve preferred Roseanne’s narrative to Dr Greene’s, but I thought they were both excellent. The different tones, the different perspectives on similar events actually complemented the story rather than detracted from it, in my view.
I think you’re right about the ending and that it was probably responsible for the book NOT winning the Booker.
Can’t wait to hear what you think of the book once you finish it.
I love Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha — definitely one of my all-time favourite reads.
Yes, don’t read the review until you’ve read the book. Then come back and tell me which side of the fence you fall on: was it a flawed novel or not? Did you like the ending or not?
I thought the story was very interesting in regard to the power of priests and the shocking treatment of women for the period in the name of God. I am with you on that unfortunate plot element although a minor nitpick in an otherwise excellent novel and one of my top reads for 2008.
Thanks for the tip on Sally Vickers too!
Your comment made me wonder if I have just read too many Irish novels, because that aspect of Catholicism (priests and their power over women) did not shock me as much as it might have previously.
Hope you enjoy Sally Vickers. I think she’s brilliant.
I too really enjoyed this work and found the use of language very appropriate, especially for Roseanne. A shocking story, beautifully told and well worth the read.
Like many, I found Dr Greene’s narrative less engaging and convincing, although I could understand why it made sense in structuring the book. I think that was the problem, you saw that it was necessary to produce the effect of Roseanne’s story. Although this did reduce the impact of the book, I shall be reading more Barry.
Interested in your comments about Salley Vickers, who I discovered last year and have now read all but The Other Side of You, which I heard on Radio 4, so I want to leave a gap before I read. I have enjoyed all of Salley Vickers’ books, which is why I read them so quickly, but, to me, they did not have the emotional depth, the reality, of The Secret Scripture.
I think you’ll probably find that The Other Side of You has an emotional depth equivalent to The Secret Scripture — in fact, I found that book resonated with me more and left me quite devastated at the end. I’m still amazed that that book (nor Miss Garnet’s Angel) never garnered her any awards, as far as I know. But I’m happy to stand corrected if that is not the case…
I loved this book – it is my top read of the year so far. Glad to see you liked it too. I couldn’t help but have Sally Vicker’s The Other Side of You in the back of my mind as I was reading it too – but I liked The Secret Scripture better 🙂
p.s. I have a new blog home – http://www.rubyredbooks.blogspot.com (formerly nutmeg of anothernutter)
I finally bought this book today with a voucher someone gave me for my Birthday (could never decide on what to buy). Since I loved A Long Long Way, I’m hoping that The Secret Scripture will also appeal to me.
It’s been a long time since I’ve read The Barrytown Trilogy, but I do remember loving it at the time. Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha was fabulous, too, as was The Woman Who Walked into Doors, as said and painful as it was. But his Henry series (A Star Called Henry and Oh Play That Thing) were much, much weaker, imho. I’ll definitely have to look into The Deportees, though, being a displaced Pole for so many years myself…
I loved this book (The Secret Scripture) and just finished it yesterday and so am missing reading it. I disagree about the plot twist that seems to disturb others. A civil war, a repressive society shaped in significant part by an all powerful church and its male figures, so much secrecy, clanishness, such a struggle to make your way socially and financially – to me it was a natural. Also loved Dr. Grene – his approach rang true, as a doctor, and Irish male brought up in England, now living and practicing in Ireland. Last night I had dinner with classmates from a Catholic girls school I attended 40 years ago (mostly Protestant like myself). Two of the six of us had been adopted. Their stories of coincidence regarding their birth families are fascinating and hardly less astonishing. Lilian Hellman said when you write, you have to cut the truth by three quarters or people won’t believe your story. One of us fell in love with an Irish Canadian boy from an associated boys school; he was born in a place not far from Sligo . . . Anyway I am clearly a grateful fan.
Thanks for your comment. I think this is one of those books where the ending divides people: you either love it or hate it. Have you read any of his other books? As you may have gathered from my opening paragraph, I highly recommend A Long, Long Way.
It will be interesting to see what you think of this book, Kinga. I didn’t think it was as good as A Long Long Way…
I only finished this book yesterday, and am feeling quite bereft, I can’t seem to shake it off. It is the first book for a long time that I just couldn’t put down. The end of the book left me with such feelings of loss, and things I wanted explaining. So many why’s ….! Why didn’t she tell Tom she’d met John Lavelle, and the bond they had had; why didn’t she try to contact Eneas once she knew she was pregnant; why didn’t she tell Mrs. McNulty it was her grandson before she threw her out; and why did John Kane take the baby away??? But of course this would have changed the course of the story I realise, but it was so totally heartrending I wanted a happier ending for Roseanne!
I am a big fan of Sebastian Barry but The Secret Scripture is not my favourite novel although I think it is probably the best book about memory that I have ever come across. I think I prefer A Long, Long Way.
Thanks for your comment, Izzy. I agree; I prefer A Long Long Way as well. I have two of his other books in my reading queue; I must read them soon!
To which I have to add – why didn’t Dr Grene tell Roseanne the twist of the ending? I liked the plot twist – and it came as a shock to me – but it feels like we’ve been left hanging as Dr Grene and Roseanne never talked about it.