The Secret Scripture

I love stories about memory—whether memory is reliable and whether we can really know what the truth is. So The Secret Scripture piqued my interest from the first moment I heard about it. When it made the Booker shortlist, I knew I had to move it to the top of my TBR list.

The book tells the story of Roseanne McNulty, a woman of around 100 years old who has been confined to an asylum for most of her life. As the asylum prepares to close down, her psychiatrist, Dr. Grene, must assess her sanity and determine what should happen to her. Is she able to take care of herself? Was she one of the many Irish women confined to asylums merely for not following society’s expectations?

We learn Roseanne’s history both from her written recollections and from Dr. Grene’s notes reflecting on a statement from Father Gaunt, the priest in County Sligo, Roseanne’s home. So we are left to wonder who is reliable and to question whether the truth is really important. Along with Dr. Grene, we ask, “What is wrong about her account if she sincerely believes it? Is not most history written in a sort of wayward sincerity?”

This was the first book I had ever read by Sebastian Barry, an author who gets a lot of praise for his beautiful prose. I must confess that I wish I had started off with something different because this book was not quite enjoyable enough to make me a Barry fan. The story itself was interesting enough. I loved how the various versions of Roseanne’s story interconnected, and I could see the truth—and untruth—in every account.

Barry gets a lot of praise for his writing, and I would agree that there is great beauty in his prose. At times, however, the tone became too melodramatic for my tastes, some of which is probably due to Roseanne’s voice, which kept me at a distance. Here, for example, is Roseanne’s description of Sligo:

Sligo made me and Sligo undid me, but then I should have given up much sooner than I did being made or undone by human towns, and looked to myself alone. The terror and hurt in my story happened because when I was young I thought others were the authors of my fortune or misfortune; I did not know that a person could hold up a wall made of imaginary bricks and mortar against the horrors and cruel, dark tricks of time that assail me, and be the author therefore of themselves.

It’s pretty, but it didn’t pull me in. However, once I got interested in the story it didn’t bother me, either.

The biggest disappointment in The Secret Scripture, however, is with the ending. There’s a twist that was both obvious and out-of-the-blue. I figured it out about halfway through the book because it was the only reason I could see for giving one character a specific history. But I simply couldn’t see what it would add to the story. And when the truth is revealed, it doesn’t add much—just a lingering feeling of dissatisfaction.

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8 Responses to The Secret Scripture

  1. Sandra says:

    I enjoyed reading your review. I’m going to read it despite its flaws because I’m betting it’s still better than a lot of other books around right now. I’m borrowing it from the library of course. lol And I often find that I like things that others aren’t keen about. I can’t be the only one this happens to, can I?
    Anyway, nice job.

  2. Teresa says:

    Sandra–Oh yes, it is better than a lot of books around right now. Truth be told, I think I was mostly just disappointed because I had read lots of great reviews of this book. I think my opinion is definitely in the minority!

  3. Anna says:

    I think this book sounds interesting. Sometimes the unreliable narrator stuff drives me nuts, but other times it just works.

    You say you like books about memory and whether it’s reliable. Have you read Angelica by Arthur Phillips? If not, I think you might like it. I reviewed it here:

  4. Pingback: The White Tiger « Shelf Love

  5. Teresa says:

    Anna: Thanks for the recommendation! I read your review, and Angelica looks like it’s right up my alley: Victorian setting, possible ghosts, multiple points of view, unreliable narrators with unreliable memories. I’ve added it to my wish list!

  6. Pingback: Bloggers take on the Booker longlist

  7. redheadrambles says:

    I see we have somewhat contrary views on The Secret Scripture and The White Tiger…I really enjoyed S.S not so much W.T. I do agree with you about the ending of the Barry – it really let the side down to what could have otherwise been an excellent novel.

  8. Teresa says:

    redheadrambles–I did check out your reviews, and what’s funny is that we noticed a lot of the same things about both books but just had different feelings about them. I think had it not been for the ending my review would have be more positive, but I didn’t love the writing as much as others have (I did find it a times a little overblown, as you suggested some might), so what I did like wasn’t enough to overcome the ending.

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