The Secret Scripture
by Sebastian Barry
Although THE SECRET SCRIPTURE failed by an em-space to win the 2008 Man Booker prize, Sebastian Barry romped away with the Costa Book of the Year for his wonderful novel. We don’t normally recommend the big prize winners on the grounds that they’ve already got quite enough media coverage, but we had to make an exception for this. Although quintessentially Irish in tone and setting, it is a book that can be counted amongst the very best of contemporary world fiction.
Roseanne McNulty is almost 100 years old and has spent most of those years in Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital. As death approaches, she decides to make a record of her life history and, nervous of it being destroyed, writes on scraps of paper which she hides under a loose floorboard in her ward. Meanwhile, her psychiatrist, Dr Grene, is writing a journal in which he records his own emotional state as much as his impressions of the institution in which he has worked for thirty years. The mental hospital is about to be demolished and he must decide which of the patients should be moved to the brand new hospital and which are well enough to be returned to the outside world. He becomes especially interested in Rosanne, whose quiet dignity and intelligence militate against a diagnosis of dangerous insanity, and he resolves to find out why she was incarcerated all those years ago.
These two narratives - one often illuminating the other but also sometimes contradicting - together gradually build a picture of Ireland’s terrible history of the early 20th century and its inevitable legacy. While Dr Grene’s investigations call into question the reliability of Roseanne’s narration, so her chronicle gives the lie to official records of the time that he uncovers. Barry makes no distinction between the veracity of these ‘scriptures’, leaving it up to the reader to decide where the truth lies, while making no bones about the fact that religion and its cruel certainties underlie this very Irish tragedy.
Rosanne’s voice is lucid, sweet and unforgettable and her story that of a blighted generation. It is in fiction like this that we can find the sort of truths that are missing from history books.