My recent off the cuff decision to read some of the books on this year’s longlist for the Man Booker Prize paid dividends with the second book. Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture is one of the best novels I’ve read this year.
The sectarian and religious politics of 20th century Ireland are the backdrop for the story. And while essential to the tale, it is a history seen through its impact on individual lives. Two written accounts provide the narration. One is from Roseanne McNulty, a woman believed to be about 100 years old who has been in mental institutions for more than 60 years. The other is Dr. Grene, the senior psychiatrist at Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital, where he has been for 30 years and Roseanne for 50.
Knowing really no one and realizing she has lived far, far longer than most, Roseanne decides to write a “testimony of herself” on paper she hides under a floorboard in her room. Her action follows an unrelated government decision to raze the hospital, first built in the late 18th century. Because of legal changes and the new hospital being built will have fewer beds, Dr. Grene must assess which patients can be returned to their communities and which will be moved to the new hospital.
Although Grene considers Roseanne an “old friend,” he is not sure what led to her institutionalization. When he discovers her old Roscommon records have essentially disintegrated, he sets out in search of her history, both through interviews with her and trying to trace records from her hometown of Sligo. Not only do their narrations reflect slightly different takes on their visits, there are discrepancies between her story and what the documents tend to indicate. The reader can’t help but wonder whether to take the word of the inmate of a lunatic asylum or rely on the pieces of documentary evidence Grene uncovers.
As both versions unfold, we are taken inside Roseanne’s devastated life, one seemingly battered by persons and forces beyond her control. Although the ultimate truth is probably somewhere between the two versions, there is no question she was a victim of the struggles between Unionists and Nationalists, Catholics and Protestants and the combination of them. Roseanne tells her story beautifully through Barry’s enticing, nearly flawless prose. She draws us in so that we begin to feel just how heart-rendering her downfall is, brought about by events both significant and innocuous. Grene’s voice is more analytical. Still, the problems in his personal life tend to soften it when necessary and, at times, Roseanne seems to do more for Grene than he has for her. The various counterpoints make for an exceptional whole.
Perhaps The Secret Scripture ties up a few too many things too neatly as it unveils the secrets of Roseanne’s tragic story. That, though, is a failing I’ll quickly forgive in exchange for exquisite and consummate storytelling. This will undoubtedly be on plenty “best of the year” lists and is a more than deserving Man Booker Prize candidate.
We have neglected the tiny sentences of life and now the big ones are beyond our reach.
Sebastian Barry,The Secret Scripture