Sebastian Barry’s story about the 100 year old Roseanne McNulty is both fascinating and engrossing. Although this is one in a series of books about these characters, it stands alone very well and is an excellent introduction to Barry’s writing.
Roscommon Mental Hospital is set to be torn down and the director, Dr. Grene has to figure out what to do with his patients, including Roseanne McNulty. Should he move her to the new facility, or should he find someplace for her on the outside where she can restart her life? The problem with the first option is that she doesn’t seem at all crazy. On the other hand, she’s been living there almost all her life, so how would she survive in the outside world? What’s more she is already about 100 years old, so just how much life does she even have left to live? To help him decide, Dr. Grene begins delving into Roseanne’s history to find out why she was placed in an insane asylum at such a young age. At the same time, Roseanne has decided to secretly write down the story of her life from before her being institutionalized. This is The Secret Scripture a story of two people, both separate and interconnected, by Sebastian Barry.
This tale is told in alternating voices. On the one hand, we get Roseanne’s writing her story of her past in a small Irish town called Sligo during the 1930s. On the other, we have Dr. Grene writing a diary of both his situation with the hospital as well as about his wife who recently died. So while Roseanne is writing as a form of closure, Dr. Grene is writing as a process of mourning. What’s more, both have two different issues to confront. Roseanne has not only her past but also in relation to her life at the hospital. Dr. Grene needs to mourn not only his wife, but also the dissolution of his hospital and the dispersion of all those he has cared for over the years – and most particularly for Roseanne who certainly hasn’t long to live. So while these two narratives take place in parallel, they also have things that make them intertwine.
What I found the most effective was how Barry composed Roseanne’s writings. Barry uses innocence and lightness in Roseanne’s words, which makes the reader feel like we can believe that perhaps she isn’t totally sane. And yet, there is also a feeling that what she writes is grounded in truth. In addition, rather than having Roseanne just writing her history, she also writes about things happening around her at present. In her scripture she relates to visits by Dr. Grene as well as to what she sees outside and also the other patient who cleans her floor. This is how Barry instills in us that Roseanne is writing this as a reminder of her past and not as a separate story, which works extremely well.
“….this is a really lovely novel, with vivid characters and an interesting story line which uses a carefully structured mechanic of two first-person accounts…”
Since Dr. Grene’s writing is being used to trying to make sense of his own life, while also make preparations for closing the hospital, most of his parts concentrate on the present. However, he also includes his investigations into Roseanne and how she came to the hospital as a way of trying to see what would be the best solution for her. Why this is necessary even though he has been her psychiatrist for many years, is because she’s been mostly incommunicative. This is another way that Barry builds up these characters, while also allowing us to be shown who they are and why they act as they do, without telling us outright. Remember, the golden rule of fiction writing is “show, don’t tell” and Barry has certainly learned this lesson. Moreover, using both voices means that we also get to see first-person accounts of the other characters, making them both very vivid to the readers in the physical sense as well as the mental and emotional sense.
You should know that the name McNulty and the town of Sligo were already parts of Barry’s repertoire. In fact, some of what happens in his earlier novel “The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty” actually comes into play in this book. However, you don’t need to have read the previous novel in order to enjoy this one. This is because even though the author doesn’t attempt to fill his readers in on the background, the story holds together as one so nicely, that you will not feel that anything is missing.
But what really sold me on this book was the style of the writing. Not only can you feel that we have two distinct voices here, but that the genders of both writers are both very clear. There’s nothing masculine in Roseanne’s sections, or falsely feminine, which could be partially expected from a male writer. With Dr. Grene, we don’t get a sterile account, as there’s a very personal look into his feelings in what he’s writing. We get excited along with him as he tells us some new tidbit he’s discovered about Roseanne, just as we feel sad and hurt when he’s talking about his wife. In fact, of the two, it seems that Roseanne’s account is the more objective and disconnected emotionally. As if she were the one looking at the facts, much like a doctor would. And yet, we also don’t feel Roseanne is totally detached here. Barry is also a poet, but that doesn’t mean that the language here is flowery. Instead, he uses the simplicity of his words to evoke the emotions and reactions of his characters.
All told, this is a really lovely novel, with vivid characters and an interesting story line which uses a carefully structured mechanic of two first-person accounts to allow us both inside the characters as well as to observe the outside with them. What’s more, within these two stories is a connection which Barry leads up to and reveals all along the way, much like a mystery novel. This makes The Secret Scripture all the more readable and fascinating. I cannot find any fault with this book with the tiny exception of perhaps it was a touch too smooth, but even that can’t make me take a star way from my rating and I’ve decided it deserves a full five stars out of five and I highly recommend it.
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