The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

Published 28/04/2010 by damselwithadulcimer

An Irish novel about memory, truth, bigotry and religion told through the words of the elderly lady who has lived through these prejudices and experiences. Roseanne, an elderly inmate of a mental institution, recalls her childhood and her days as a young woman living around Sligo.  As she secretly consigns her memories and thoughts to paper, in the same way that female novelists may have done during the nineteenth century, her story weaves and is woven around that of her psychiatrist, Dr Grene.  She is approaching her hundredth birthday and is permitted to have hazy recollections of the past: Dr Grene, the scientist, methodically tries to piece together what he can about her previous life.

It is a fascinating, beautifully related account of growing up in rural Ireland in the years before, during and after the civil war and independence.  Roseanne’s narration borders on poetry in places and is juxtaposed by her doctor’s more rational account of matters as he uncovers facts.  Hers is a life of conflict: a Presbyterian Irish father and an English mother, who was raised as a member of the Plymouth Brethren.  The family sits on the edges of the struggle for Irish independence, but is unfairly dragged in from the margins.  Was her father a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary, was he murdered by Irish patriots, or did he take his own life?  Does she inherit her mother’s insanity, is she a nymphomaniac, and does she murder her own child?  The novel takes on aspects of a detective story as Dr Grene becomes more and more involved with his patient and strives to learn the truth.

We sympathise with both narrators as they struggle to make sense of their own lives.  Dr Grene’s unhappy marriage echoes Roseanne’s earlier misfortunes, and his bereavement anticipates the tragedies that he will later discover have befallen her, although it is never clear whether or not she has read the letter informing her of these unhappy events.  All the pieces finally fall into their correct places after Dr Grene visits England and is able to complete the jigsaw puzzle.  Life is what we make of it, but sometimes we are controlled by external events, and the truth can be stranger than fiction.

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