The Secret Scripture: A Novel

( 49 )

Overview

An epic story of family, love, and unavoidable tragedy from the two-time Man Booker Prize finalist

Sebastian Barry 's novels have been hugely admired by readers and critics, and in 2005 his novel A Long Long Way was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. In The Secret Scripture, Barry revisits County Sligo, Ireland, the setting for his previous three books, to tell the unforgettable story of Roseanne McNulty. Once one of the most beguiling women in Sligo, she is now a resident of...

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The Secret Scripture

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Overview

An epic story of family, love, and unavoidable tragedy from the two-time Man Booker Prize finalist

Sebastian Barry 's novels have been hugely admired by readers and critics, and in 2005 his novel A Long Long Way was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. In The Secret Scripture, Barry revisits County Sligo, Ireland, the setting for his previous three books, to tell the unforgettable story of Roseanne McNulty. Once one of the most beguiling women in Sligo, she is now a resident of Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital and nearing her hundredth year. Set against an Ireland besieged by conflict, The Secret Scripture is an engrossing tale of one woman's life, and a vivid reminder of the stranglehold that the Catholic church had on individuals throughout much of the twentieth century.

Soon to be a film starring Jessica Chastain and Vanessa Redgrave.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
" [Barry writes] in language of surpassing beauty. . . . It is like a song, with all the pulse of the Irish language, a song sung liltingly and plaintively from the top of Ben Bulben into the airy night."
-Dinitia Smith, The New York Times

" Barry recounts all this in prose of often startling beauty. Just as he describes people stopping in the street to look at Roseanne, so I often found myself stopping to look at the sentences he gave her, wanting to pause and copy them down."
-Margot Livesey, The Boston Globe

"Luminous and lyrical."
-O, The Oprah Magazine

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143115694
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/28/2009
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 210,122
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 7.70 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Sebastian Barry

Sebastian Barry was born in Dublin in 1955. His plays include Boss Grady's Boys (1988), The Steward of Christendom (1995), Our Lady of Sligo (1998), The Pride of Parnell Street (2007), and Dallas Sweetman (2008). Among his novels are The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty (1998), Annie Dunne (2002) and A Long Long Way (2005), the latter shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. His poetry includes The Water-Colourist (1982), Fanny Hawke Goes to the Mainland Forever (1989) and The Pinkening Boy (2005). His awards include the Irish-America Fund Literary Award, The Christopher Ewart-Biggs Prize, the London Critics Circle Award, The Kerry Group Irish Fiction Prize, and Costa Awards for Best Novel and Book of the Year. He lives in Wicklow with his wife Ali, and three children, Merlin, Coral, and Tobias.

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Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION
In the beginning, Dr. William Grene’s interest in the almost impossibly old woman is merely professional, tinged perhaps with a hint of curiosity. Roseanne McNulty, one hundred years old, was one of the most beautiful girls in County Sligo, Ireland, in her youth. She has been confined in the Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital, where Dr. Grene is the senior psychiatrist, since the days of World War II. Now, in compliance with a change in government policy that has decreed the closing of the hospital, Dr. Grene is evaluating the facility’s patients to make dispassionate recommendations about which ones are mentally fit to resume life in society. As he interviews Roseanne to determine her mental state his neutrality evaporates. Reluctant to cooperate but curiously compassionate toward him, the ancient woman impresses him as “a formidable person,” and indeed she is. Cleverly, carefully, she keeps the doctor at bay, denying him access to the deepest secrets of her past.

All the while, however, Roseanne is at work on a personal narrative of the very facts she withholds from her doctor—the “secret scripture” of the novel’s title. Over a period of years, holding almost nothing back, she has patiently recorded the details of her preconfinement life, including her father’s ill-starred attempt to give comfort to a band of Irish rebels, a cataclysmic fire at a local orphanage, and the descent of her mother into derangement. Her narrative becomes a chronicle not only of her deep emotions, but also of a turbulent era in her nation’s history, from the upheavals of the Irish civil war to the German bombing of Belfast during World War II. It also speaks personally and poignantly of the struggles of Roseanne’s Protestant family to live a peaceful, unmolested life in the midst of religious prejudice. Slipping continually into her story is a dark and ominous specter: a Catholic priest named Father Gaunt who is committed to preserving the perceived purity of his flock and the values of his religion, even if it means destroying the lives and families of those who hold dissenting views. As Roseanne scribbles out her testament, Dr. Grene also prepares a journal, intended at first to contain his professional findings but soon expanding to contain his reflections on history, the human condition, and the failure of his relationship with his wife. Gradually, the two lonely diarists forge a bond, which, in the end, proves far closer than either could possibly have imagined.

A finalist for the 2008 Man Booker Prize and winner of the Costa Award for Best Novel, The Secret Scripture encompasses not only some of the most painful episodes in Irish history, but also delves deeply into the emotions of love, passion, and soul-destroying prejudice. Casting doubt upon the reliability of human perceptions and, indeed, the very nature of truth, it also upholds the possibilities of dignity and redemption.

ABOUT SEBASTIAN BARRY

A native of Dublin, Sebastian Barry was educated at Trinity College Dublin, where he edited the highly respected literary magazine Icarus. He first received widespread attention as a playwright, earning broad acclaim for The Steward of Christendom and generating controversy with his stage satire Hinterland. In recent years, he has won an enthusiastic following with a series of historical, familial novels dealing with World War I and its aftermath in Ireland: The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, Annie Dunne, A Long Long Way, and, most recently, The Secret Scripture. The last two novels were shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. Mr. Barry lives in Wicklow, Ireland.

A CONVERSATION WITH SEBASTIAN BARRY
Q. Ireland has modernized enormously in recent decades. Indeed, your own town of Wicklow was recently connected to Dublin by a new bypass and has seen a surge in residential development. As Irish history fades, your writing seems animated both by a desire to preserve it and a struggle against some of its more troubling legacies. How do you relate to the period you describe in The Secret Scripture?

Things have indeed changed in Ireland, not only with new roads of tar and light, but also stranger, thinner roads back into the past. Ireland is a comparatively new country and it has taken a while to grow up in a sense. One of the fruits of that grown-upedness is a fresh hunger for the past, stories of the past that may have been glossed over and then forgotten, a hunger to know that vanished soldier who fought in an unpopular war and was an ancestor, or a woman put away for “moral” reasons into an asylum who was perhaps a great-aunt. So Irish history is both fading and becoming more vivid, all in the one phase of present history. There is a lack of need for it, and in the same breath a greater need. The troubling legacies of Irish history are the music of that history, in a strange sense to be not only dragged into the light, but also, by doing so, “celebrated,” dark as they are. They are the strands of the rope that leads us down from the dark tower.

Q. Some writers and historians revisit troubled times in search of resolution and catharsis. Others turn to them out of a need to relive their passion and horror. What motivates your ongoing engagement with the Anglo-Irish War?

My main concern in the last twenty-five years has been to go back and find members of my own family who were not talked about for various reasons, forgotten, quietly erased. Like all mortal creatures you find them, like ourselves, mired in history. Many of the people I am after happen to have lived through the ’20s and ’30s. My grandfather for instance was born in 1902, my mother in 1930, etc. For a novelist it has a huge advantage in that many of the intricacies and contradictions and tragedies of the time were, for even good reasons sometimes, smoothed out, simplified, and now can be teased back into a more likely and, to my mind, fascinating complexity. Of course, that very teasing out creates its own distortions I am sure.

Q. While the events in Irish history that form the backdrop of The Secret Scripture are no doubt familiar to your domestic readership, most Americans are likely to be less informed about the Irish civil war, the Black and Tans, and so on. They may also be surprised by the savageness of the passions that divided Ireland in the times you describe. Is there anything you can briefly tell us to make the historical situation more comprehensible?

Believe me, many Irish people find the long tangle of twentieth-century history quite perplexing, and hard to string out on a necklace of facts. I do myself! What is sometimes forgotten is that the nineteenth century, while it contained a struggle against imperial rule, also contained a struggle between physical force nationalism and constitutional nationalism, the former in large part winning, but that three-pointed struggle informed the subsequent history. The sequence is World War I (sometimes this is left out!), rebellion in 1916, war of independence 1919 to 1922, treaty 1922 leading to formation of a free state within the commonwealth, civil war 1922 to 1923, rise of DeValera to power 1932 (he was the losing side in the civil war), then a slow progression away from all residual links with England, eventually leading to establishment of the Republic of Ireland as late as 1949. This is all Roseanne’s time.

The savagery of the civil war was such that it was hardly mentioned in our history books when I was a child and we as a nation have only recently been able to bear to look back at it. But the facts of the war deeply informed political life, and created two hostile strands in Irish political life, though the roots of the hostility were thus strangely and very tragically hidden.

Q. In your novel, the work of Sir Thomas Browne matters greatly to Roseanne. Given that not all your readers will know about Browne, can you tell us something that explains Roseanne’s attachment to his writings?

He is a chronic favorite of my own. I have the very book she possesses in the novel on my desk as I write this, down to the date and the edition. He is a matchless and entirely unique writer and worth a look, and worth giving a certain amount of allegiance to. The nature of his prose informs Roseanne’s first attempts at writing her “scripture.” Browne, an elaborate Stuart writer, frees her into her own simpler style.

Q. Although you are an established novelist, you may still be best known as a playwright. For you, how does novel writing differ from writing for the stage, and has your proficiency in one genre helped you to master the other?

I really and truly am not sure I know what established is. In the theater you are only as good as your last play, which is one reason why I love it. It is like the circus in that respect, and who didn’t want to run away with the circus? There may be more dialogue in my novels than in my plays . . . but what plays have taught me is perhaps an inevitable lesson, that the voice can contain worlds, and also, the voice on stage cannot miss a beat. This is something that can at least be attempted in a novel, which in its English tradition has been allowed to be “baggy” (in a good sense), capacious. But the Irish novel is trying to cultivate a different cut to its trousers.

Q. Your work tends to explore the fine line between sanity and insanity, seeming sometimes to deliberately blur and question the distinction. Why does this engage your attention so forcefully?

My great grandparents actually did work in Sligo Lunatic Asylum, as the tailor and the seamstress. There has been mental illness in my family also, and sometimes a life has been lived along quite a fine line. My own brother, whom I loved above all things when we were young, has suffered in this way. My mother, who died a couple of years ago, was a great actress and a great eccentric.

Q. Much of the injustice that is visited upon Roseanne comes at the hands of Father Gaunt, whom her father initially calls a “good man” but whose intolerance destroys Roseanne’s happiness. Do you regard Gaunt as representative of the Catholic Church as a whole or as a tragically misguided individual?

In A Long Long Way I was privileged to write about a good priest in the person of Father Buckley, who ministers to the dying men and boys at the front in World War I. Just a few years later, independence gave a lot of power to young priests in Ireland, and in my view it didn’t do some of them much good. I think some readers may recognize Father Gaunt. At the same time the genesis of the character is actually in my own family again, in that one of my cousins was auxiliary bishop of Dublin under Archbishop McQuade (very conservative), and I wondered what sort of young man he might have been. I do see Father Gaunt also as a victim of the times, but some readers have chided me for this. They want his hide.

Q. Roseanne’s fate is truly horrifying but not all that uncommon for young Irish women who gave birth out of wedlock or were abandoned by their husbands during this time. Was Roseanne modeled on any particular person?

On a great-aunt, who was sectioned perhaps in the ’30s, and had her marriage annulled, and disappeared. I still don’t know her true name. It seems she was the piano player in my great-uncle’s band and full of life, and beautiful. Perhaps that was her crime.

Q. The Secret Scripture as a whole is concerned with unreliability, whether the uncertainty has to do with memory, with human motives, or the act of writing itself. Your novel describes a search for truth. Given the nature of memory and storytelling, do you think this is achievable?

No, hardly, but what might be achievable is a preference for one sort of misapprehension over another, for gentleness over cruelty, no matter how backed up with fact, for mercy over torture, etc. Mental health to me is not factuality, though it may contain it, but the music of being alive, contained and expressed in many ways, including the sounding and rightness of syntax and language, which is after all our birdsong, our signal to each other and to whatever God or gods might take an interest in us.

Q. Your books and plays are often linked together by characters and families that appear in more than one of them, like the Dunnes in The Steward of Christendom, A Long Long Way, and Annie Dunne. You do this again with Eneas McNulty inThe Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty and The Secret Scripture. What does this say about you as a writer?

Well, that I stumbled into twenty-five years of work without quite knowing what I was doing. As the poet Patrick Kavanagh said, I “dabbled” in this act of writing, and “found it was my life.” I have tried to make up a family, a kind of ramshackle history, and perhaps even a tin-plated country, in order to be a son and a father in it, and a citizen of that invented place. What has given me joy as a writer is that against all the odds sometimes readers seem to recognize the place.

Q. You have now been shortlisted twice for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. Has this changed your life and the way that you work? In what ways?

The Man Booker has been an adventure, especially as I was shortlisted for consecutive books, which is rare enough. It was a privilege to have that adventure, part of which is endurance naturally, but mostly a sense that there is a little more space in the room to swing the cat. The winning of the Costa Book of the Year in January 2009 was also a shock and has been celebrated in Ireland in a way that really has moved me. But I still work the same way—that is, in the same confusion and worry and doubt, and sometimes, if I may say, inexplicable joy when a long, long theorem of a book or play just for a moment, just for a moment, seems to intimate an answer.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • Although Roseanne is very reluctant to converse with Dr. Grene about her past, she pours her recollections into her secret journal. Why do you think she is so reticent with regard to the psychiatrist and so blatant in her private revelations?
  • Do you think that The Secret Scripture is specifically intended as a story about Ireland and the Irish psyche, or is it a more universal story about issues that affect oppressed people everywhere?
  • The theme of woman as a sexual transgressor and outcast has long engaged writers of fiction from Hawthorne to Hardy and beyond. In what ways, if any, did The Secret Scripture contribute to your understanding of women who are punished for their sexual behavior?
  • Early in the novel, Joe Clear calls Father Gaunt “a good man.” Subsequent events call this judgment gravely into question. Playing devil’s advocate, can you think of reasons for calling Father Gaunt a good man? If so, then why does his “goodness” have such disastrous effects?
  • Father Gaunt’s account of Roseanne’s life is clouded by his prejudices. Roseanne’s autobiographical testament is rendered unreliable by her age and her suspect mental condition. Which version of events do you find more trustworthy? Is either account completely untrustworthy?
  • How does Dr. Grene’s relationship with his wife, Bet, relate to the principal plot of the novel?
  • Early in the novel, Joe Clear drops feathers and hammers from a tower in a botched attempt to explain the force of gravity to his daughter. Why do you think Barry inserts this curious vignette into the book?
  • What character names in The Secret Scripture do you think serve a symbolic function? What, specifically, do these names suggest?
  • Although Roseanne Clear is plainly victimized by those around her, she also makes some very poor choices, like going to meet John Lavelle on Knocknarea and seeking help from Mrs. McNulty when she is on the verge of giving birth. Is she in some strange sense complicit in her own suffering?
  • The novel explores the risks inherent in seeking truth. Have your own searches for truth sometimes had unforeseen consequences?
  • In the end, do you find Roseanne’s story tragic or triumphant? Explain.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 49 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 49 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 15, 2008

    Booker Award Finalist!

    This is the haunting story of an elderly woman who has lived quietly in a mental hospital for many years. The resident doctor becomes interested in her case and digs up her history in an attempt to decide if she really is insane. <BR/>This book has been short listed for the Booker award and it¿s easy to see why. Lyrical prose combined with a captivating plot make for a book I couldn't put down. Above all I loved the pacing, the book starts out slowly, all about the beautiful writing, and then the plot takes over, building to a big climax. <BR/>I listened to the audio version of this. Wanda McCaddon's Irish accent really added to the atmosphere and context of the story. She does an especially impressive job with elderly Roseanne's voice versus young Roseanne's voice. I highly recommend listening to this one!

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 3, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Winner Irish Fiction 2009- literary book

    Book Review of The Secret Scripture by Annette Dunlea
    This book is now available in paperback, published by Faber and Faber and its ISBN is: 0571215297. It was short listed for the man Booker Prize 2008 and won the Costa Book of The Year 2008. It is literary Irish fiction at its best. It records the past dominance of church in secular relations and the maltreatment of women in the hands of men. The story is heard in two voices the elderly Roseanne Mc Nulty a patient and Dr.Greene a psychiatrist. Roseanne is a very old woman who records her secret history in her secret journal and in vivid poetic prose. The doctor is forced to re-evaluate his patients in the asylum and see if they can be released into the community, therein lies the plot of the tale. Our purpose is to discover the reason for Roseanne's admission and in doing so we get a history of Irish life in Sligo in 1930. Dr. Greene too records his interviews with Roseanne. His voice is in a different more modern tone to hers. He is an independent impartial observer to her tale. Gentle not to upset her he teases information from her and so we are left to discover the truth for ourselves. The paradox of the imperfection of human memory as opposed to the factual written word is show here. She develops a wonderful relationship with the doctor based on empathy. He too is grieving the death of his wife and his own imperfection as being the ultimate healer. Roseanne was a beauty in her day living on the outskirts of society who has been maltreated by her community. By recording her tale she gives a voice to the woman who was institutionalized by priests and by society unjustly. In recording her annals she healed herself. She is not so much a victim as a survivor. While some were dismayed by the ending I enjoyed the novel for me it is a wonderful tale on compassionate, love, life and on human inter relations. It is story telling and dialogue at its best. What he records is important but equally so is his eloquent language.

    Reviewed by Annette Dunlea author of Always and Forever and The Honey Trap

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 15, 2012

    The most beautiful and poetic prose. A story that will not leave

    The most beautiful and poetic prose. A story that will not leave you soon

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 9, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    The walls of an asylum might hide many secrets, but Dr. Grene¿s

    The walls of an asylum might hide many secrets, but Dr. Grene’s interests are fixed on elderly Roseanne McNulty as the ancient asylum’s threatened with closure. Why was she left here? What was her crime or her insanity? And how will she cope in the outside world?

    Roseanne hides her secrets in a diary in Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Keeper. Meanwhile her doctor keeps secrets of his own, and both tell their lives from their own point of view, adding their own interpretations to events. When the stories start to collide and combine, their mysteries slip through the cracks and hints of deeper truths appear.

    Father Gaunt has written the truth he claims, but he might be as unreliable in his records as poor old Roseanne is in her written recollections. Feathers and cannon balls fall from a tower, symbols of the different paths of different points of view. And the fog of Sligo finally clears to reveal a tortured truth.

    The characters’ voices are beautifully and consistently portrayed in this novel. The points of view are vividly real. And the promise of hope stays alight throughout the tale. My only complaint would be that I guessed the conclusion too soon, but it couldn’t stop me reading—couldn’t tear me away from the characters.

    An enjoyable novel, evocative, haunting, and hopeful in spite of its dark themes, this one is highly recommended.

    Disclosure: My sister-in-law loaned me this book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 9, 2009

    A thoughtful read

    Sebastian Barry's language is so full, it made me want to write some of it down and also to go back and read it again...as soon as I finished the book. I did not but only because I want to wait and savor it all one more time.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 7, 2008

    The synopsis sums it up

    The synopsis is better and more interesting than the actual book. It pretty much told you the whole story. I just couldn't get into the book. I tried reading the middle and end to see if it interests me enough and I will start reading from the beginning but it didn't.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 10, 2013

    Great

    Cant imagine how anyone couldnt like this book

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 22, 2012

    Deep, dark, depressing with a twist at the end

    This was a pick of my book club. It was good; not the best book I have ever read. The story itself was dark and depressing. The end contained a twist I absolutely did not see coming, which was fun. The writing itself was very good....descriptive and beautiful if somewhat rambling at times. Not a book I would have finished had it not been for the book club, but I am glad I did. It has sparked an interest in Irish history for me.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 8, 2011

    Could not be more uninteresting

    I always finish a book no matter how bad or slow - until this book. I couldn't even make it 1/2 way through it. It is horribly boring. There didn't seem any point to it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 19, 2009

    Fantastic story

    The writing is poetic, it is a book you absolutely cannot skim. Read every word. This is the first book I've read by this author and I will definitely read the rest of his work.

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