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.