Book Review: Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

sscriptureSecret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

As a young woman, Roseanne McNulty was one of the most beautiful and beguiling girls in County Sligo, Ireland. Now, as her hundredth year draws near, she is a patient at Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital, and she decides to record the events of her life.

As Roseanne revisits her past, hiding the manuscript beneath the floorboards in her bedroom, she learns that Roscommon Hospital will be closed in a few months and that her caregiver, Dr. Grene, has been asked to evaluate the patients and decide if they can return to society. Roseanne is of particular interest to Dr. Grene, and as he researches her case he discovers a document written by a local priest that tells a very different story of Roseanne’s life than what she recalls. As doctor and patient attempt to understand each other, they begin to uncover long-buried secrets about themselves.

Set against an Ireland besieged by conflict, The Secret Scripture is an epic story of love, betrayal, and unavoidable tragedy, and a vivid reminder of the stranglehold that the Catholic Church had on individual lives for much of the twentieth century

 Told from two different angles, both of whom are unreliable narrators.

 Roseanne, an elderly woman of not-quite-determined age has been living in an Irish mental hospital for at least 60 years. Dr Grene, nearing retirement, tries to assess Roseanne as the hospital is about to be relocated and he needs to assess where she should go.

In secret Roseanne starts to write her history, and running alongside this you get to hear what Dr Grene finds out about her from various sources. It’s a turbulent time in Ireland, the civil war is raging to be followed by WW2. Non Catholics are viewed by suspicion, the population are in thrall to the Catholic priests, who in turn believe their word is law and they are not to be ignored. Women who do not submit and conform (especially if they are pretty or sexually aware) are to be downtrodden, and if necessary committed to an asylum.

Roseanne tells her own version of her young life and what led to her committal to the asylum. Grene finds the alternate version, and in himself finds that he has put his own version of the truth, so recognises that noone’s recollection is perfect. He also learns some shocking and surprising truths in the end.

 Lovely, occasionally painful (it reminds me of my cultural heritage, and pushes a set of buttons in me that makes me very angry – primarily directed against the Catholic church and Irish priests in particular!), this has been catching my eye several times over the last few years and am now glad have read it



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