Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture is the story of Roseanne McNulty, who at around 100 years old has been living in a psychiatric hospital for most of her life. It may not sound like the promising start to a novel, but as Roseanne begins to write down the story of her life, we are soon drawn into the fascinating world of 20′s and 30′s rural Ireland, a time of civil war and the Irish Free State.
Roseanne’s upbringing in the Coastal town of Sligo in Ireland’s west is one of poverty and sadness, yet Barry’s stunning prose leaves you lingering over his words, no matter how distressing the scene.
From the very beginning a great sense of loss permeates this novel. We do not know why Roseanne is in the institution, so as she tells us of her childhood and youth, we are just waiting to discover what set of circumstances could possibly result in her being locked away.
It is not all bleak, there are glimpses of sunshine in Roseanne’s life, and we desperately want them to last, but still there is our knowledge of her fate, so we can never relax, knowing the happiness she finds must somehow come to an end.
I enjoyed learning something of the history of Ireland with this novel. When we think of the Ireland of today, it is easy to forget the brutal civil war that took place less than a hundred years ago. This was a time when people were judged not just by their own politics and allegiances, but also those of their families and friends. It was a time of survival and betrayal, themes which permeate the novel. The Irish Free State existed between 1922 and 1937, and was then succeeded by the modern state of Ireland. Through Barry’s novel we learn how divisive this time was, giving us an insight into the political tensions that existed.
There were some wonderful descriptions of the landscape and character of rural Ireland. At times, it is overwhelmingly dismal “as it was raining with that special Sligo rain that has made bogland of a thousand ancient farms” (p96) while at others we can feel the wonders of living by the ocean. “Oh yes, the beach at Strandhill, high tide as it was, is good for a little, and then it plunges down, you are suddenly in the big water of the bay there” (p150).
I loved this book. While some found its ending a little too convenient, I was prepared to suspend my disbelief in honour of such a beautifully told story, if you are looking for a gentle, moving novel set in Ireland, this is a perfect choice.
About the Author
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