Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry
Viking (Penguin)
ISBN: 978-0670019403
Published June 17, 2008
Hardcover, 304 pages

Both Sandra and I read this book for our book club and we shared some similar views on it.We also discovered a talented Irish writer! Here are our thoughts on it:

Sandra's thoughts:

This is an incredible book on so many levels! And, true to form for an Irish tale, it is bittersweet. It’s the poignant story of 100-year-old Roseanne McNulty as she records the events of her life; it’s the story of Ireland during the 1920’s and 30’s amidst tremendous political upheavals; it’s the story of Roseanne’s psychiatrist, Dr. Grene as he mourns the death of his wife. It is all of this and much, much more! There are many sub-themes.

Roseanne is a happy person despite the circumstances of her life. She had a child of adultery whose whereabouts are unknown; her father may or may not have been murdered; her husband’s family along with the local priest, nullified her marriage (divorce was not allowed in Catholic Ireland) and committed Roseanne to the asylum. Does religious intolerance influence this treatment of Presbyterian Roseanne?

Roseanne has spent 60-odd years in this institution, 30 years of which under the care of Dr. Grene. A rapport has developed between them that transcends a doctor-patient relationship. As the time approaches to decide her future, Dr. Grene reads documents about Roseanne from other sources and discovers that her history, with all its tragedy, may not be quite what it seems. 

Two different narratives are used to tell the story, that of Roseanne and of Dr. Grene. The shifting viewpoint gives an entirely different perspective to things. 

The author is a master at haunting, lyrical prose. For example, Roseanne describes herself as “an old, old woman now, though I may be as much as a hundred, though I do not know, and no one knows. I am only a thing left over, a remnant woman, and I do not even look like a human being no more, but a scratchy stretch of skin and bone….and I sit here in my niche like a songless robin- no, like a mouse that died under the hearthstone where it was warm, and lies now like a mummy in the pyramids.” “Panic in me now, blacker than old tea.” Regarding the local priest, “he carried a highly ecclesiastical umbrella, like something real and austere, that said its prayers at night in the hatstand.” Plus, and perhaps most amazing of all is that the author is writing in the voice of an old woman. How can he write so convincingly? 

Many themes are explored: the haziness of history and memory, the power of the clergy in the day-to-day life of the Irish, the effectiveness of incarceration in an asylum, religious intolerance, ignorance, superstition, and the resilience of the human spirit. 

Laura's thoughts:

I also very much enjoyed this novel and was taken in my Barry's unique turn of phrases and the way he built up the mystery surrounding Roseanne, especially as she writes her life history and reveals her memories of some of the tragedies she lived through. The story has a slow start, but only once I got into it did I realize that the author takes the time to build the foundation of his story and drops a lot of clues that make sense as we race toward a bittersweet ending.

As Dr. Grene delves into Roseanne's history, he discovers a very different story from the one she has penned on paper, making the reader question the real reason she ended up in the asylum and why her telling is different. It makes us question our memories and how we remember events from our past especially if they are steeped in tragic circumstances. This fascinated me since I work with seniors who have dementia.

I learned a few things about Irish history and had not realized just how much hatred among the religious groups caused local bloody wars and took away youngster's innocence. Although this book contains tragedies, Roseanne is a positive character, humourous sometimes too and her telling is so interesting that I wanted to continue reading despite the heavy themes.

If you like Irish stories, this one is a good one. Do not be put off by the slow start. I went back and reread some of the earlier passages, just to see how it all fit in again. And Barry's writing is certainly thought-provoking and beautiful.

Note: This book is rated P = Profanity for religious expletives(many) and f-bombs (about 6 in all).

Reviewed by Laura and Sandra 

Disclosure:  We borrowed this book from the library and were not told how to rate or review this product.

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