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[204] The Secret Scripture – Sebestian Barry

secretI 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.” [101]

How Roseanne McNulty ended up at Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital and has stayed there for over sixty years have been a mystery. The ninety-nine year old lady, with other than a minor setback that senility inevitably dictates, ages very gracefully. That she is well within her mental faculty baffles her caregiver, Dr. Grene, who has been asked to evaluate the patients to decide if they can return to society when the hospital closes down. At sixty-five, Dr. Grene is mourning the death of his wife, with whom he had grown estranged, and he has gone daft from grief, looking for forgiveness and redemption the way normal people look for the time.

I knew somehow I must never apologize to Fr Gaunt, and that from henceforth he would be a force unknown, like a calamity of weather waiting unknown and un-forecast to bedevil a landscape. [96]

Indeed Dr. Grene is horrified to read a Catholic priest’s account leading up to Roseanne’s incarceration at the asylum and annulment of marriage. Fr Gaunt’s document tells a very different version of her life from what she can recall. Was either the priest or Roseanne subject to mere error of memory? For one’s truth will render the other’s untruth. As Dr. Grene and Roseanne’s narratives begin to coalesce, stitching together and shedding light on the old woman’s past, Sebestian Barry, who makes rich use of his loquacious native tongue, delivers a tapestry of Irish life that the civil war and religious tyranny have torn apart.

Of course Roseanne’s life spans everything, she is as much as we can know of our world, the last hundred years of it. She should be a place of pilgrimage and a national icon. But she lives nowhere and is nothing. She has no family and almost no nation. A Presbyterian woman. [183]

That she has been raised a Protestant (Presbyterian is a denomination of Protestant Christianity) set her up to be target of attack by the Catholics, after her father has been murdered. The priest has warned that her soul is lost if she is not to confer to Catholics. Her family, like many that remained Protestant in Northern Ireland at the time, has become incarcerate in the belligerent struggle between the Free Staters and the Irregulars. Behind the stories of these victims are horror and hypocrisies of Ireland, and one can see how society has repeatedly condemned the innocent to live in exile and desperation, as if the great wheels of history were turning not turned by reason by catastrophes that were to incur on humans. A national who holds a dissident religious view is bound to be persecuted. For the priest has regarded Roseanne’s Protestantism as a primal evil.

Friend or enemy, no one has the monopoly on truth. [128]
I must admit there are ‘memories’ in my head that are curious even to me. [201]

Whether it’s out of escape or mere loss of memory, The Secret Scripture is written in a manner that presents a sense of confusion, or vagueness, that is natural of unreliable memory. It illuminates on memories that the conscious mind ruminates repeatedly, as well as those that come back without conscious thought and that are experienced again like dreams. Whichever the perspective is, these memories imply useful truths above and beyond the actual version of the facts, as each individual recalls. Given the vagaries and tricks of the human mind, factual truth is almost impossible, because true memory is often tainted by personal interpolation. Barry’s prose is so beautifully written, filling with mantras on life. The contrived ending that has been said to be responsible for its losing the Booker Prize is foreseeable.

300 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]The Secret Scripture was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2008.

24 Responses

  1. I have been waiting for this to come out in paperback. I hope to get the chance to read it soon. Glad you liked it.

  2. I have this book in my “Save For Later” file on my Kindle. I can’t decide whether I should try it or not. While you have recommended this as something to read, I am left with mixed feelings from your review. I don’t like contrived endings. The jury is out!

  3. I’ve been wanting to read this one for a while, having read a bounty of positive reviews… But your review has convinced me that I must absolutely read this book sometime soon! It sounds so fabulous!

  4. Oh, this looks wonderful! Definitely adding it to my list – I’ve heard such good things about Sebastian Barry and never read any of his books yet.

  5. I tried to read this one a little while ago but just couldn’t seem to get into it. I have been hearing such wonderful things about it that I am going to give it another go though – maybe I just wasn’t in the right reading mood before??

  6. I don’t believe there are many books with the struggles of Northern Ireland used as the plot. THere are so many stories there that should be published.
    I think these are events that not many Americans are familiar with so a book that has this as a plot should be publicized. Things like this should never be forgotten, and if a fiction book can remind people, then all the better.
    Brilliant review!

  7. This is on the top of my tbr pile! I’ve never read Barry and am looking forward to it.

  8. wonderful review. I will read this book contrived ending and all!!

  9. I had dismissed this one because of the title, but I see from your review that it’s not so much about scripture, but has an interesting plot. I don’t always mind contrived endings, either.

  10. Claire:
    This book is now in trade paperback under Penguin. It must be selling pretty well because mine was the last copy at the bookstore. Hope you enjoy it! 🙂

  11. Sandy:
    It’s contrived but not that contrived! About half way through the book I sort of discern what was really going on and the ending didn’t surprise me. 🙂

  12. Steph:
    It’s what a call a very artsy, crafty and well-written books. The language is absolutely beautiful.

  13. jennysbooks:
    Now I’m digging his other works. A Long Long Away is on my list. 🙂

  14. JoAnn:
    Well, this has been a delightful introduction to Sebestian Barry for me. I’m sure this will not be the only book I read by him.

  15. Staci:
    Like I said to Sandy, this is not that contrived. But I have realized something about the plot about half way that is confirmed at the end. For some readers, it’s a surprise.

  16. Jeanne:
    It has to do with how religion (at least pernicious religious leaders) can change someone’s life for worse, in generations to come. It’s well-written. 🙂

  17. Karen:
    I agree this is not a book that would immediately arrest its readers. Also the first couple chapters are somehow slow and information is flowing slowly. Keep up with it and you shall be rewarded. 🙂

  18. jennygirl:
    Great point! I learn a history lesson of Ireland during the civil war and its aftermath through reading this book.

  19. Wonderful review,Matt. That is unfortunate about the contrived ending. I have not read any Sebastian Berry. Perhaps I will get to it once my TBR list is not so overwhelming already.:)

  20. Thank you for such a wonderful review! I haven’t read anything by Barry but this one sounds really interesting. I like reading about memories and how they shape us or we shape them as times pass.

  21. Rebecca:
    I don’t find the ending very contrived, although I’ve seen it coming. I enjoyed reading it! 🙂

  22. iliana:
    This book, in its meditation on memory, reminds me of some other books that I recently read, like The Spy Game. How reliable is our memory? What about our perception?

  23. […] made an effort to read through the 2008 shortlist: The White Tiger, The Secret Scripture, and The Clothes on Their Backs. Sea of Poppies, A Fraction of the Whole, and The Northern Clemency […]

  24. […] The Secret Scripture Sebestian Barry The novel illuminates on memories that the conscious mind ruminates repeatedly, as well as those that come back without conscious thought and that are experienced again like dreams. […]

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