Author: Sebastian Barry
Genre: Historical Fiction
Number of pages: 300
Year Published: Great Britain – 2006; United States – 2008
Rating (out of 5): 4
If one considers the mark of a good character the extent to which he or she inhabits the reader’s head, Sebastian Barry does the reverse with the characters in his novel, The Secret Scripture. Rather than conforming to our minds, his protagonists beckon us to enter theirs.
And what richness they offer. The novel’s heroine, the enigmatic and ironically named Roseanne Clear, opens with the revelation that she, at 99, has decided to pen her own “secret scripture” hidden away on scraps of paper, detailing the upheavals of her life en route to her present existence at Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital, including the distraught the nation of Ireland faced in the 1900’s. Paralleling her story is that of William Grene, the senior psychiatrist coping with a personal tragedy of his own.
The book’s structure is a unique one. It doesn’t begin with the early part of Roseanne’s life, but instead starts with the end and then proceeds to recall the characters’ histories in an erratic fashion, akin to a series of journal entries. The effect of this style, though potentially limiting in that the reader knows from the beginning where both Roseanne and Dr. Grene will end up, is one of greater intimacy. Although the novel does offer some revelation, its chief satisfaction is not in the disclosure itself, as the reader realizes far in advance what the “twist” is going to be. Our enjoyment derives from the effect this information will have on the characters, who the reader easily comes to admire.
Yet Barry manages not merely to depict the inner lives of his protagonists. It is through their struggles that he broadens the novel’s scope to include the struggles of Ireland throughout the twentieth century. The intensely personal nature of The Secret Scripture only serves to focus the overwhelming subject matter: an entire nation boiling down to two individuals filled with adversity in their lives but still surviving. Much of her life will remain uncertain, caught between the contradictory testimonies of her own memory and Dr. Grene’s discoveries, but the one omnipresent certainty for the reader is Roseanne’s endurance. Just as Ireland emerged from the twentieth century battered but not beaten, this personification of its century perseveres to share her story.
Review by: Jennifer Heine, A&S '16