Wednesday, 25 November 2009

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: November 2009 NOTES: This is a wonderful book that in lyrical prose unfolds the story of Roseanne who has been incarcerated in a mental hospital for most of her life. When the book begins she is an old lady of nearly a hundred looking back on her past in a quizzical way as she secretly writes down her memories. At the same time her psychiatrist Dr Grene is making notes of his assessment of her as he tries to decide where she should go when the institution closes. He is intrigued by her calm demeanour and by her apparent lack of interest in communicating with him. Many of her records have disappeared and he is increasingly drawn into trying to find out who she really is and how she came to be in the hospital. Through Rose’s testimony we learn how her own mother was insane, that she adored her father and was later rejected by the family she married into. Her family’s Presbyterianism in a Catholic society is a constant source of trouble. But Rose is never strident or outraged by what has happened to her – all her troubles are seen with a half sad, half amused view. (Her way of speaking reminded me very much of the unfortunate Grace in Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace) Rose is very much a commentator and spectator of the world around her. When Dr Grene confronts her with some recorded facts about her past she rejects them – Rose’s writings have become her own truth. Dr Grene is a kindly though far from being faultless. He is slow to respond to obvious abuses and problems within the hospital and is also infuriatingly slow in getting to grips with Rose’s history. But he has no illusions about his own capabilities: “It would be a very good thing if occasionally I thought I knew what I was doing.” A lovely book, well deserving all the critical acclaim. Barry writes of bitterness, memory and loss in an Ireland of sectarianism, hatred and betrayal. But in spite of everything the spirit of Rose survives. My only real problem with The Secret Scripture was the rather clumsy and coincidental plot device at the end – this was a pity and spoiled the end for me. The Secret Scripture is a book that draws you in and you want to race through it to find out what happens. But now I feel I need to go back and read it again in order to savour the wonderful language.

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