The Secret Scripture

( 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.

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Editorial Reviews

Dinitia Smith
Above all it is the surpassing quality of Mr. Barry's language that gives it its power. A woman is as "young and slight as a watercolor, a mere gesture of bones and features." Swans in a rainstorm are like "unsuccessful suicides." And the moon—well the moon is "prince of all outside," he writes. "Its light lay in a solemn glister on the windowpanes"…Mr. Barry has said that his novels and plays often begin as poems (he is a published poet), but his language never clots the flow of his story; it never gives off a whiff of labor and strain. 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.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Playwright Barry's touching novel turned plenty of heads upon its release, as an elderly mental patient documents her life and times in County Sligo, Ireland, while her doctor uncovers a remarkably different story of her existence. Wanda McCaddon's British dialect is no hindrance to her remarkable portrayal of protagonist Roseanne McNulty, as she leaps into character with a stunning, perfect Irish accent that captures every nuance of the West Coast dialect. McCaddon's performance is among the best of the year. Her believable portrayal is perfectly modulated and nuance-filled, creating a stunning listening experience. A Viking hardcover (Reviews, Mar. 31). (Oct.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
The Boston Globe
Just as he (Barry) 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 . . . When I reached the last page, I did feel that I had shared a profound experience . . .
—Margot Livesey
O Magazine
Luminous and lyrical.
—Pam Houston
Salon.com
I'd nominate Sebastian Barry, the most exhilarating prose stylist in Irish fiction-which just about makes him, by definition, the best prose writer in the English language . . . Barry has shown a dazzling facility with poetry, drama and fiction-his works form a mosaic-like whole, though each stands on its own. He never uses a fancy word when a simple one will do; his characters speak a plain vocabulary, but in cadences tempered and honed into poetry . . . Sebastian Barry's achievement is unlike that of any other modern Western writer, a tapestry of interrelated works in different mediums woven from strands of his past and that of his country. The Secret Scripture fits seamlessly into a vision that seeks to restore with language that which has
been taken away by history.
—Allen Barra
Library Journal

As her 100th birthday nears, Roseanne McMulty documents the story of her difficult life in a manuscript she hides from the staff of the Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital. Author Barry (A Long Long Way) describes 1930s-40s Ireland in bold, vibrant language, while Wanda McCaddon (What Was She Thinking?) does a spectacular job voicing the characters, playing at turns an aging, haunted woman and a mourning male doctor. Among the year's best audio adaptations; highly recommended for all collections. [Audio clip available through www.blackstoneaudio.com; the Viking hc was longlisted for the 2008 Booker® Prize.-Ed.]
—Stephen L. Hupp

Kirkus Reviews
A subtle study of psychology, religion, family and politics in Ireland. This is not, as the title might suggest, another Da Vinci Code clone. Barry (A Long Long Way, 2005, etc.) writes vigorously and passionately about his native land. The story is told antiphonally, alternating narratives between a secret journal (hidden beneath the floorboard) kept by Roseanne McNulty, a patient in a mental hospital, and the "Commonplace Book" of her psychiatrist Dr. Grene, who's dealing with serious issues of grief after the death of his wife. Roseanne has always been something of an outsider, her father a cemetery-keeper and rat-catcher but most importantly a Protestant in a land largely hostile to this religious orientation. Although Roseanne remembers a happy childhood, in which she was the proverbial apple of her father's eye, he becomes involved in the political and military entanglements of Irish political life. When Roseanne grows up, she becomes the wife of Tom McNulty, but through a series of misunderstandings-as well as through the machinations of the grim-faced and soul-destroying priest, Fr. Gaunt-she is as good as accused (though falsely) of adultery with the son of a political rebel. Out of malice toward Protestants as well as out of a misplaced moral absolutism, Fr. Gaunt has her marriage annulled-and, using nymphomania to explain her "condition," has her locked up in the asylum. Dr. Grene gets interested in her story as well as her history, and in tracking down her past he finds a secret that she has kept hidden for many years, a secret that affects them both and that intertwines their families. In a final assessment of Roseanne-after she's spent decades in the asylum-Dr. Grenedetermines that she is "blameless." She responds: "‘Blameless? I hardly think that is given to any mortal being.'" Indeed, blamelessness is a state no one achieves in this novel. Barry beautifully braids together the convoluted threads of his narrative.
The Barnes & Noble Review
The plays and novels of Irish writer Sebastian Barry are haunting, beautiful creations, riddled with secrets and often populated by ghosts. In their quiet way they are also deeply subversive. Barry is preoccupied with Ireland's most turbulent decades -- those of the First World War, the 1916 rebellion, the 1920s War of Independence and Irish Civil War -- but he mines rather than glorifies those legendary events. Chipping away layers of patriotic dogma, this meticulous craftsman reveals the individual tragedy and cruelty at the heart of Ireland's founding myth, a myth that cannot accommodate his troublesome characters.

Barry's heroes, therefore, are commonly outcasts. The former policeman in the play The Steward of Christendom, for example, whose dignity and decency make him an embarrassment, even a traitor, in the newly independent state. The young Irish soldier in the novel A Long Long Way who joins the British Army in 1914 to fight on the Western Front -- and is later moved by the 1916 Irish rebellion, producing conflicting loyalties of religion, heritage, and comradeship. The ancient woman in the mental hospital in Barry's new novel, The Secret Scripture, whose hidden story exposes one of Ireland's most shameful legacies. These frail individuals are, above all, an affront to power, whether that power wears the uniform of the British Army, the Irish Republic, or the Catholic Church.

"I am only a thing left over, a remnant woman," Roseanne, the chief narrator of A Secret Scripture, explains. "No one even knows I have a story. Next year, next week, tomorrow, I will no doubt be gone, and it will be a small-size coffin they will need for me, and a narrow hole. There will never be a stone at my head, and no matter."

Roseanne appeared briefly, but crucially, in a previous Barry novel, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty. Now almost 100 years old and incarcerated in a dilapidated mental hospital in rural Ireland for almost seven decades, she is writing her story secretly, on stolen paper that she hides under a floorboard. Roseanne begins with loving recollections of her father, who was "the superintendent of the graveyard" in Sligo town until he was removed from that position during the Civil War. She recalls his splendid blue uniform, his affection for the Sermons of John Donne, for light opera, for his Matchless motorcycle, and his beautiful, if melancholy, wife.

Yet even these early, innocent memories contain unsettling puzzles. Roseanne's is a Presbyterian family, yet her father is accepted as a town employee in a predominantly Catholic community. He wears an elaborate uniform that draws hostile stares. His wife fears each day for his safety. The Catholic parish priest, Father Gaunt, seems to be both the family's ally and its overseer.

These disturbing inconsistencies persist, even as Roseanne's fervent voice demands that we trust her. She is surely telling the truth -- as she knows it -- and we are immediately drawn into her story, enthralled by wistful, lyrical reflections that carry darker intimations. "After all," Roseanne muses, "the world is indeed beautiful and if we were any other creature than man we might be continuously happy in it."

Like William Trevor, a writer with whom he is often compared, Barry is not only an elegiac writer but also a sly one who increases suspense imperceptibly and to great dramatic effect as his wonderfully opaque plot unfolds. Wartime action and atrocities may be distant memories in this novel, but they materialize suddenly and with dreadful force. The scene during the Irish Civil War, for example, in which 14-year-old Roseanne witnesses three Irish Republican Army rebels demanding that her father bury their slain comrade at night, is immediate and terrifying.

The tension in Roseanne's own story increases as we begin to perceive her not solely through her own recollections but also through the eyes of Dr. Grene, the hospital psychiatrist. When his patients are due to be transferred to a new institution, Grene's visits become more purposeful. In order to reassess Roseanne for transfer or release, the doctor must unearth the original circumstances of her committal. He gently interrogates her. But as he investigates, Grene gradually pieces together a radically different version of Roseanne's story, this one largely based on written testimony by the "small, self-believing...and lethal" Father Gaunt. "How Fr Gaunt knew all these details is not clear," Grene dryly observes. "I am puzzled by his omniscience, but then that was the ambition of a priest in his time." The cleric is indeed one of Barry's most despicable villains, but neither we nor the psychiatrist know that yet.

The diffident Dr. Grene has his own secrets -- an infidelity, an unhappy marriage -- which leach into the notes he keeps of Roseanne's case and which gradually reveal his life to be a more commonplace tragedy than hers. Both patient and doctor have, in a sense, grown old together. During one visit, Roseanne notes, "He rubbed his nose and groaned. In that groan was all the years he had spent in this institution, all the mornings of his life here, all the useless talk of mice and cures and ages."

As these two observe each other, Roseanne's life is revealed to be one of love, unbearable loss, and appalling injustice. She was ruined, as were so many helpless women, not by two world wars or by Ireland's bloody strife but by her neighbors and erstwhile protectors. "The word of a man like that was like a death sentence," Roseanne recalls of her final, chilling confrontation with Fr Gaunt. "I felt all about me the whole hinterland of Strandhill speaking against me, the whole town of Sligo murmuring against me." Indeed, a death sentence might have been kinder than incarceration in the Regional Mental Hospital, a place "where sisters, mothers, grandmothers, spinsters, all forgotten lie...lost women there, in long rows." A place where Roseanne cries "slow, slight tears that no one sees, no one dries."

Barry can break a reader's heart with such plain sentences. In The Secret Scripture he also mesmerizes us with language often reminiscent of J. M. Synge or Sean O'Casey -- and then abruptly recalls us to a brutal reality. But even brutality, in the world Barry creates, can be redeemed, if not forgiven. "Yesterday was the day she might have told me everything," Grene reflects, having decided not to press Roseanne further "[b]ecause it strikes me that there is something greater than judgment. I think it is called mercy."

For her part, Roseanne concludes, "History needs to be mightily inventive about human life because bare life is an accusation against man's dominion of the earth." The religious echo is hardly accidental. Within a few hundred pages that span a simple life, Barry has written both an Irish epic and, in the truest sense, a morality tale. --Anna Mundow

Anna Mundow writes "The Interview" and "Historical Novels" columns for The Boston Globe and is a contributor to The Irish Times.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781410411303
  • Publisher: Gale Group
  • Publication date: 12/3/2008
  • Edition description: Large Print
  • Pages: 484
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 1.00 (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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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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