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on 3 March 2009
Barry's prose is simply gorgeous, his manner of expression is poetic and tactile and I finished the book because I got caught up in his words as much as his tale. That said, the plot is also superb until the denouement, which is so trite I almost felt cheated by its convenience...but that prose drew me back in. For a painful and difficult book with such strong and well-defined characters I think the reader could have coped with an incomplete, or even broken and unsettling ending. You could argue that this is indeed the case depending on how you see things, but I felt I'd gone from reading a truly credible and important novel to reading the plot of a television movie. Definitely worth reading though. With a box of tissues.
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VINE VOICEon 28 January 2009
Roseanne McNulty is an old, old lady. Most of her life has been spent in mental institutions. As the book opens, no-one is really sure how old she is, why she was committed to an institution in the first place and whether she still needs to be in one (if she ever did).

The hospital where she now lives is due to close and psychiatrist William Grene has to decide what should happen to her. Official records are either missing or so scant as to make the old lady seem little more than a ghost.

But Roseanne has not always been a ghost: she was once a little girl; a young woman; a wife; a mother. This flesh and blood Roseanne is preserved in the "secret scripture", a hand written account of her early life kept hidden beneath a loose floorboard in her room. So whilst Dr Grene follows the sparse clues left by what remains of her in the outside world, the reader gets to hear Roseanne's story in her own words.

This is a masterful exploration of the way in which place, time and circumstance can impact on the lives of ordinary people. In this case the place is the West of Ireland and the time is the Irish Civil War and its aftermath. Roseanne's circumstances are that she is female and the daughter of a Protestant father and a mentally unstable mother.

Despite its background, this book is not about the use of institutions as a means of social control in Ireland (or anywhere else) and readers who are expecting something along those lines may be disappointed.

The writing and characterisation are firmly in the 5 star bracket, but the denouement will have you tearing your hair out, so 4 stars overall.

Nevertheless, a good read. This was my first Sebastian Barry and it inspired me to read more.
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on 14 April 2009
I have just finished this book and found it a brilliant read. As an ordinary reader, I sometimes find Booker prize winners heavy going but this one gripped me from the start. I had to keep reminding myself that this was a work of fiction and not a true story. However, it is true in the sense that this kind of thing used to happen in Ireland and not that long ago. Roseanne's story would break your heart for all those poor people who ended up in asylums because nobody wanted them or they were an embarassment to their family. Would recommend this excellent book to anyone.
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on 29 October 2008
Sebastian Barry's Booker 2008 shortlisted The Secret Scripture is the first novel of his I've read. It is written in the form of logs kept by its two main protagonists, Roseanne McNulty, a frail old lady of around 100 years who has been in mental asylums for most of her adult life, and William Grene, Roseanne's psychiatrist, who is approaching retirement. The setting is a small town called Roscommon near Sligo in Ireland.

Roseanne is writing her history - as she remembers it - because she knows her life is nearing an end. William Grene is keeping a diary because his private life has imploded with the disintegration of his relationship with his wife Bet. He also has the task of assessing the patients of Roscommon mental hospital to see which can be released into the community when the hospital is pulled down and rebuilt at another site with far fewer beds. Because of this, he needs to ascertain the reasons for each patient's admission - whether they are truly 'insane' and in need of continual care in an institution, or whether they are potentially able to be re-integrated back into the community.

Thus starts a curious friendship between the two, based more on empathy than on communication. Roseanne keeps her written account of her life secret by hiding it under the floorboards and only allows Dr Grene to coax tiny fragments of her past from her. For his part, William Grene is content to not traumatise Roseanne with intrusive questioning, but the mystery of her past starts to haunt him.

The interspersing of Roseanne's and William Grene's written accounts draws the reader slowly into both their lives. Roseanne's sections are written in a more archaic tone than Dr Grene's because of her age, and the prose in her testimony is almost poetic at times, dreamy and nostalgic. In its tragedy and wistful, fragile flashes of beauty, it is reminiscent of John Banville's prose in The Sea. Roseanne's writing reveals not only her own difficult life but also much of the social and political history of Ireland from the 1920s on. As with Maggie O'Farrell's The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, the reader reels from the revelation of the ease with which women could and were locked up in asylums. The grim realisation of how much life has changed for women is also never far away.

My only gripe with this book is a tiny one about the fact that authors do so much research into so many aspects of their work but almost always neglect the area of accuracy of medical facts. There are many references to Dr Grene having been a 'penniless student studying psychiatry at a hospital in England' or of him having been 'a few months out of college' before his arrival at Roscommon. The fact is, you don't go to 'college' to study psychiatry, you go to medical school where you study some psychiatry with all the other specialties like medicine and surgery and paediatrics, and after that, you're out of college for good and if you want to specialise in psychiatry you do so by working your way up the career ladder in hospitals while swotting at home for professional exams. I gave Barry the benefit of the doubt on this, assuming Grene was just a few months out of medical school before moving to Roscommon, but it transpires he was in his mid thirties when he arrived in Roscommon, which would mean an extraordinarily long spell at medical school. Plus there's a reference to him being inspired to 'read psychiatry at Durham' - well, there was certainly no medical school at Durham in 1983 so there can't have been one in the '60s when Grene would have been a student.
Elsewhere there is reference to the fact that Grene's 'degree wasn't exactly glittering' which is another inaccuracy - medical degrees are either pass or fail, they're not graded (first, two-one, etc) like other degrees. Finally, there's a nonsensical comment from Greene about a character with throat cancer being 'old enough for such a cancer to move very slowly', as if age of onset had any consistent relationship with aggression of a malignancy (which depends on spread of cancer at diagnosis, number of lympoh nodes affected, metastatic involvement of other organs, cell type, site, etc.)

The only other mild criticisms is that the twist at the end is so unlikely as to almost be implausible, but it's testimony to Barry's writing that instead of flinging the book across the room as I'm wont to do with other unfeasibly neat, glib endings, I read it instead with a lump in my throat.

So, pedantic nit-picking aside, this is a gorgeously written book, almost brittle and transluscent in the delicacy of some of its prose. The misery of existence in Ireland in the early to mid twentieth century means that it is not an easy or uplifting book, but it is worth reading nevertheless.

****0
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 26 June 2009
I would have rejected this book for its "grim" theme of an old woman dying in a mental asylum, but was obliged to read it as a "book group" choice. From the first page, I began to revise my opinion, struck by the poetic quality of the writing, with unusual and memorable imagery. The sad situation of the central character Roseanne was eased by her own wit and self awareness. The Catholic priest, Father Gaunt, was a wonderfully malign presence through the book.

The story deteriorated for me at the point when Roseanne recalled her life as a young married "normal" woman. The relationships with her husband and his family were underdeveloped and the events leading up to her incarceration were often unclear, even implausible. Without revealing too much, the manner in which she became pregnant and the details of the birth of her child were unconvincing or unrealistic.

The idea that we may have different perceptions and recollections of past events is interesting, but I was irritated that Grene felt the need to spell this out so specifically, rather than leave it to the reader to work this out.

I also agree with reviewers who have found the final denouement far too contrived - almost ludicrous in the piling on of coincidences.

Also, the wise and self aware "voices" used by both Grene and Roseanne were often too similar - and it was unlikely that an old woman asylum-bound for so long would be so lucid.

This tale is much less bleak than other recent Irish novels e.g. The Gathering or The Sea, but although I admire the quality of the writing I would not recommend it strongly. At first I thought it was an interesting take on the timeworn theme of the effects of Catholic bigotry but was left thinking that it had added little to my understanding of this.
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on 6 December 2008
At a recent reading, a member of the audience commented that she wanted to take the book home with her only if Barry himself would accompany it. He was that good and uproariously funny! I was sitting next to a couple of friends who had already read the novel. They both commented that it wasn't at all the voice in which they had read the book. Excellent, I thought, sometimes being behind the times is an advantage after all.

The genesis of Sebastian Barry's tale begins in his own family. One day, while driving near Sligo, his mother pointed out a little tin hut and commented "Of course, that's where that woman stayed for many a year". That woman turned out to be Barry's great-aunt. A little research, the discovery that his relative had been institutionalised for social reasons and a fertile imagination combined to produce this year's Booker-shortlisted novel.

Roseanne McNulty's tragedy is a fictionalised account related to that of Barry's great-aunt; the novel his attempt to reconcile himself to being the member of a family that treated one of its own so shabbily. Roseanne is one of the lost people - Barry believing that Irish history is told more truthfully by documenting the stories of the losers, not the winners. Facts don't always lie on the surface. They must be hunted, dug out, remembered, misremembered.

Roseanne is almost 100 years old, has been institutionalised for 60+ years and care in the community policies mean her psychologist, Dr Grene, must determine whether she is sane enough to be "freed". Her history is not clear. While Roseanne creates a narrative that makes sense, it is not always factually true. It becomes clear that she has sanitised her history - possibly to remove the terror from the truth, which involves fearful and loathsome incidents replete in the Irish past.

Barry controls his novel beautifully. Past psychological policies contrasting with the present (in many ways just as insane). The narrative voices of Roseanne and Dr Grene contrasting and complimenting. Dr Grene has troubles of his own, which echo the experiences of Roseanne. The fascinating, if uncompromising, portrayal of Irish society in a time when one could be institutionalised for simply not conforming to society's expectations. The blurring of fact and fiction in the memory. Misrememberings - not lies. A mystery - the solution of which is signposted from the middle of the novel. A solution I was hoping would be avoided.

The only faux pas in an otherwise perfect novel. I'd only deduct a 1/2 star (Amazon forcing me into deducting a full one) but it rankles much more than that. Could this have been the reason why Ariga triumphed in this year's Booker?.

Final point - I would recommend The Secret Scripture to all lovers of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. There are common themes, yet The Secret Scripture has a broader scope, documenting not just the personal tragedy of one unjustly incarcerated, but the troubled history of the Irish nation.
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VINE VOICEon 25 August 2008
Roseanne McNulty is an old, old lady. Most of her life has been spent in mental institutions. As the book opens, no-one is really sure how old she is, why she was committed to an institution in the first place and whether she still needs to be in one (if she ever did).

The hospital where she now lives is due to close and psychiatrist William Grene has to decide what should happen to her. Official records are either missing or so scant as to make the old lady seem little more than a ghost.

But Roseanne has not always been a ghost: she was once a little girl; a young woman; a wife; a mother. This flesh and blood Roseanne is preserved in the "secret scripture", a hand written account of her early life kept hidden beneath a loose floorboard in her room. So whilst Dr Grene follows the sparse clues left by what remains of her in the outside world, the reader gets to hear Roseanne's story in her own words.

This is a masterful exploration of the way in which place, time and circumstance can impact on the lives of ordinary people. In this case the place is the West of Ireland and the time is the Irish Civil War and its aftermath. Roseanne's circumstances are that she is female and the daughter of a Protestant father and a mentally unstable mother.

Despite its background, this book is not about institutionalisation as a means of social control in Ireland (or anywhere else) and readers who are expecting something along those lines may be disappointed.

The writing and characterisation are firmly in the 5 star bracket, but the denouement will have you tearing your hair out, so 4 stars overall.

Nevertheless, a good read. This was my first Sebastian Barry and I shall certainly be reading more.
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Sebastian Barry's 'breakthrough' book is the story of Roseanne Clear, who has been confined to a mental hospital for sixty years for unspecified reasons. Now, at the point where the hospital is about to be closed, Roseanne's psychiatrist, William Grene, begins to suspect that Roseanne has never been mad, and finds himself increasingly drawn to the old woman, regularly talking to her, and trying to trace what happened to Roseanne and why she ended up in the mental hospital in the first place. Meanwhile Roseanne has decided to write her own life story. It's a moving tale, in which the troubled politics and religion of Ireland are mixed up with Roseanne's own unhappy experiences - with the demotion of her beloved father Joe from local cemetery warden to rat catcher, and Joe's eventual suicide, the madness of her mother, the threats and bullying that the Presbyterian Roseanne has to endure from the Catholic priest Father Gaunt and from the Catholic family of her jazz musician husband Tom, and with the beginning of Roseanne's tragic downfall, when she is found talking to a freedom fighter, John Lavelle, who once knew her father. And gradually, as we read on, we come to the greatest mystery of Roseanne's life - she had a child, but who was the father and what happened to her baby? Dr Grene determines to find out, and to care for Roseanne in her final years, as she has never been cared for before.

Barry's writing is beautiful, and he brings both Dr Grene and Roseanne vividly to life. The material about Ireland's history and about life in Ireland in the 1930s and 1940s is fascinating (though it helps to know a bit about Irish history before reading the book - I got a bit confused at times). And Barry's narrative style makes for compulsive reading. I also thought it was particularly clever to make the freedom fighter/terrorist so sympathetic - one understood why he had become as he had, while also realizing that he did terrible things. All in all, there was a lot of very interesting information here, as well as some vivid characters. For me, I found that the plot rather weakened in its later stages. There were certain bits that I found implausible (the whole annulment plot, for example - didn't a husband need to see his wife and didn't the wife need to undergo medical tests for an annulment to take place? And would Tom have been so easily convinced that Roseanne was ill?). I also found the whole section in which Tom's brother Eneas (the main character in another Barry novel, which I haven't yet read) appeared and met Roseanne, and Roseanne's strange experiences on the beach very strange and quite unbelievable - were we meant to believe Roseanne might have made some of it up? Also, I agree with the reviewer who pointed out that the end finished way too tidily: it didn't convince me somehow. And a warning - don't read this book if you are feeling depressed, as, despite the fine writing and compelling characters, it can get horribly bleak (Roseanne's had sixty years of misery in the mental home and a lot of misery before that, the Catholics in the novel are exaggeratedly nasty at times, and even the good Dr Grene is suffering terrible depression after the death of his wife, who never quite forgave him for an affair he had many years before). This great bleakness of the story, and the strange twists to the plot in the last fifty pages stop me giving the book five stars - nevertheless, it was impressive in many ways, and l look forward to reading more Sebastian Barry in due course.
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VINE VOICEon 2 January 2011
The Secret Scripture tells the story of Roseanne McNulty, who has spent most of her adult life in Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital. She's now almost one hundred years old and has decided to devote her final days to recording her life story in a secret journal. Meanwhile, the hospital is about to be closed down and Dr Grene has begun the slow process of reassessing his patients to see if they can return to the community. There's something about Roseanne that intrigues him and he becomes determined to find out why she is there and how she came to be admitted to a mental institution.

The story is told in the form of two alternating narratives: the first is Roseanne's Testimony of Herself in which she relates anecdotes and memories from her childhood in Sligo, Ireland, building up a picture of the events that led to her admission to the mental hospital. Roseanne is a captivating narrator with a strong, memorable voice and her story is absolutely heartbreaking; it seemed her whole life was just one tragedy after another. The second narrative is from Dr Grene's Commonplace Book, the doctor's account of his investigations into Roseanne's past, as well as the details of his own troubled marriage and strained relationships. Although Dr Grene's voice was not as strong as Roseanne's, I still found his sections of the story interesting.

I don't want to say too much about the plot because I think this is one of those books that will have more impact if you go into it knowing as little as possible. What I do want to tell you about is Sebastian Barry's writing style. His style is quite unusual, very poetic in places, and it took me a few chapters to get used to it. But as the book went on, I became more and more impressed by the quality of the writing. It really was beautifully written and the plot started to take second place to the gorgeous prose.

The author assumes you have some previous knowledge of 20th century Irish history. There are a lot of references to the Free State, the Irregulars, the IRA, Eamonn de Valera, the Royal Irish Constabulary and the Irish civil war, for example. I only have a basic knowledge of Irish history and although I could still follow what was happening, I think I might have got more out of the novel if I'd had a deeper understanding of the historical and political context.

The only thing that disappointed me about this book was a plot development towards the end that just felt too contrived and unrealistic. Despite that one negative point, I would highly recommend The Secret Scripture.
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on 12 April 2009
Of course having read "The Secret Scripture", I can now appreciate the high praise lavished upon it. I must say it is well deserved. Sebastian Barry's novel is a gripping and wonderful read from start to finish - mainly for its excellent story telling.

Barry tells his intriguing and twisting story by means of parallel narratives. In other words, Barry places two first person narrators in a mental hospital, Roscommon. One of these narrators is Roseanne McNulty who is approaching her one hundredth birthday and the second is Dr Green a late middle aged psychiatrist. Roseanne looks back to a turbulent past primarily set against the background of Ireland's civil war and strife and tells a heart-rending story that she writes as a secret scripture kept under the floor boards in her room. At the same time, Dr Green who is winding down his professional work, in view of the pending closure of Roscommon, becomes keenly interested in Roseanne's case history and begins to enquire further into her past. It is these two narratives and their rendition that makes a wonderful story and a great read.

The exercise of writing for both Roseanne and Dr Green becomes much more than mere story telling or an account of personal histories. Effectively, it could be said that both Roseanne and Dr Green, in different ways, are incarcerated in Roscommon. Writing the testimony and the commonplace book becomes a therapeutic exercise for both. It is a means of expunging sad memories of the past.

Memory and history are key themes explored in this novel. The novel brilliantly raises questions such as the subjective aspect of writing history and just how much we can rely on memory. The text of the novel mirrors these concerns. Barry's prose is littered with after thoughts and qualifications which also goes a step beyond the issues of memory and history and enter into the realms of exploring the relationship between thought and language. Don't be mislead by these suggestions, The Secret Scripture is not an esoteric novel rather I think that these themes, which make The Secret Scripture a very good novel, are worth highlighting.

The novel is also a delight to read for its intertextuality. There are lovely references to art, cinema, poetry, etc. The feelings and images conjured up by these references places Barry's novel in a broad cultural context and heritage. It's as if Barry is suggesting that no work of art or life stands in its own context - it derives from a broad cultural and historical context.

The language of Barry's prose is quite simply marvellous. But it is more than that because in places it functions as a relief from the grim and harsh reality of Roseanne's past. Here is an example, when Roseanne is out working with her father trapping rats: "He worked away at the traps for a while, and I stood near him, the night wind moaning a little where it crept along the buildings. There was a cold cheap cankered-looking moon risen, just sitting on the roof of the orphanage." The personification of natural phenomena is beautifully rendered.

I have one small quibble with the novel. In the main the novel is grounded in the realist tradition but at times its plot is incredulous taking on the aura of a romance - a la Jane Eyre. One such passage in the novel is where Roseanne goes to visit her father's grave and is nearly raped by a former suitor, Joe Brady, only to be rescued by John Lavelle a potential assailant who had a grudge against her over his brother's death. To be fair to Barry, his narrator tells us at the beginning of the passage that: "Now here is a story of general stupidity in me. You might not credit the level of it" I can only assume that this approach is used to get at deep truths that we cannot encounter in ordinary day to day experience.

The Secret Scripture is simply story telling at its best. It is a wonderful story with twists and turns in the plot that is never impenetrable. It is a life affirming novel. It is a novel that reminds us that in the great broad sweep of history there is also micro personal history that reveals our common humanity.
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