Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Secret Scripture, by Sebastian Barry

Roseanne McNulty is an ancient woman--perhaps 100 years old--who has lived for more than half of her life in Irish mental hospitals, first in her hometown of Sligo and then in the Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital. She has begun to write her life story, which she hides under a loose floorboard in her room. And it is a life of terrible tragedy, full of events that could indeed drive a person mad--and yet it is clear from her "testimony" that Roseanne is not insane. As Roseanne recounts her story, horrendous experience follows horrendous experience--as just one example, she witnesses an orphanage burn down and scores of children die as the result of a mistake by her father in his role as the town's rat-catcher. The Irish civil war and the oppression of women within the Catholic Church (and Irish culture, nearly the same thing at that time) feature prominently in Roseanne's early life. Throughout Roseanne's testimony, Barry builds a sense of dread--clearly, the events that led to Roseanne's institutionalization  involved unbearable pain and betrayal, and we know we will eventually learn what those events were. As the dread grows, however, so does the reader's respect and affection for Roseanne.

Meanwhile, Dr. Grene, who has worked at Roscommon for some 30 years, is attempting to evaluate Roseanne, both because the hospital is about to be torn down and every patient must be relocated and because current policy requires that those who have been institutionalized be considered for reentry into the community.  Dr. Grene is unable to get much information from Roseanne, but he conducts research back in Sligo to try to learn more of her history. He finds her company enjoyable, especially as he is grieving the death of his wife, who was apparently unhinged by a one-night stand Dr. Grene indulged in at a conference some years earlier.

The story alternates between Roseanne's testimony and the notes that Dr. Grene writes in his daybook. Roseanne's version of her story and the one that Dr. Grene uncovers vary on numerous critical dimensions, putting the reader in the position of knowing something that the two characters don't know while still not knowing whether either version is accurate. Near the end, there is a truly startling development--one that I found almost unbelievable--I had to listen to the passage where the surprise is revealed three times to make sure I understood. While I thought this development was a little "hokey," it did not interfere with my overall enjoyment of the book.

The Secret Scripture is the story of ruined people, ruined institutions, and a ruined country, told with what I think of as a sad Irish eloquence.  Yet . . . the story still somehow manages to be about the resilience of the human spirit. Definitely recommended.

Favorite passage:
It is a scandal in the halls of myself.
(There is much to enjoy in the writing but I was listening to the book and did not do a good job of nothing important passages.)

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