Thursday, 21 April 2011

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

After commenting on another blog recently that I never read sad books, what do I go and do? That's right - read a sad book.

This story has two narrators. The first is Roseanne McNulty, a woman who has spent the last 60 years in a mental hospital in Ireland. Roseanne decides to write down the story of her life. She keeps this record a secret, hiding it under a loose floorboard in her room. She writes about her childhood and her close relationship with her father. Then about her period of independence in 1930s Sligo when she worked as a waitress and went out dancing with her friends. Then her marriage to Tom McNulty and on up to the events which led to her being committed to the asylum. The terrible background to all this is the Irish Civil War and the hatred and brutality that went along with it. Also very clear is the power of the priests - Roseanne is not Catholic, which is not in her favour.

The second narrator is Dr Grene, who is in charge of the hospital in which Roseanne is a patient. The hospital is going to close and Dr Grene has to decide which patients will go into the community and which will be transferred to the new, purpose built hospital. He becomes fascinated by Roseanne. He claims to need to find out about her background in order to decide on her future. But clearly a woman of 100 years old who has spent over half her life in an institution is not going to live in the community, the new hospital is the only place for her. There is some other, perhaps sub-conscious reason why Dr Grene is trying to solve the mystery of Roseanne.

Roseanne's story is tragic, but her voice is beautiful, lyrical and articulate. As the story progressed I wondered about the accuracy of her memories. Is she just remembering what she wants to remember? Or perhaps her mind is protecting her from dreadful truths. Similarly with the official records. Are they truthful or are they the work of people who would say anything to get Roseanne committed?

I thought this was an excellent and thought provoking book - despite being sad.


  1. Circumstances have meant that I have now read this book three times and I am still unsure which of the memories, whether they be those of Roseanne or those of Dr Grene, are reliable. For me the most fascinating part of the book is the 'discussion' that is going on about the way in which we use narrative (both written and oral) to shape our lives and make them understandable, sometimes make them bearable.

  2. I thought it was a great book Annie. The unfairness of what happened to Roseanne was hard to take, and it probably did really happen to hundreds of women.

  3. I have not read this, but seen it often.

    Your review has certainly made me want to read it now!