The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

Set in County Sligo, Ireland, The Secret Scripture is part memoir, part present day narrative. The memoir is told by an old woman of a time when Ireland was racked by conflict and a crisis of identity and the Church still held an awful amount of influence over the lives of its worshippers. The present day narrative is from the perspective of a doctor who has a close relationship with the woman, his patient and shows his reflections on his impressions of her as well as difficulties that he is experiencing in his own life.

Roseanne Clear is a ninety-nine year old woman who is in a mental hospital in Roscommon under the care of Dr. Grene. The building is in a state of disrepair, verging on dilapidation and Dr. Grene is charged with finding places for all his patients. A new hospital is being built which will house some of them but for Roseanne, who is ostensibly of sound mind and not in need of a great degree of daily care, he has a dilemma: release her into the world to find her own way at the age of ninety-nine with no existing family or friends or try and find a place in a new hospital which, even though it is empty at present, is already oversubscribed.

In order to come to this decision, he is reassessing her to try and ascertain where would be the best place for him to put her but really, he knows that he will have to release her into real life and the meetings he has with her are a way of going through the motions. He does not have the original paperwork that details why she was committed in the first place and so, part of his narrative is searching into Roseanne’s past by talking with her and gleaning as much as he can from what she is willing to tell him and from attempting to trace the records of her confinement. They also have a relationship of mutual like, both enjoying the other’s company.

Unbeknown to Dr. Grene, Roseanne is writing her memoirs and hiding them in her room, detailing her history as she remembers it, committing her life to paper. She begins with her life as a young girl, describing the time that she spends with her father who is a graveyard superintendent, digging the graves for funerals and ensuring that the last resting place of so many loved ones is neatly maintained. Roseanne and her family are not Catholics and so will always be perceived as outsiders in the small community of Sligo but they have a comfortable existence for the most part.

Roseanne has a close relationship with her father and rarely focuses on memories that do not contain him, her mother scarce given a mention in her memoirs. It is her father’s demise that affects her the most.

The political tensions and strife of the region are the cause for the first upset after members of the Irish resistance land on the Clears’ doorstep, wounded and scared. Roseanne sees the violence of the world first hand on this night and is also introduced to John Lavelle, one of the rebels who will become important to Roseanne later in the story, crucially so to the course that her life will take. The way that her father chooses to deal with the situation of these renegades landing on their doorstep changes their lives for ever and this is where the influence of Father Gaunt, the local Catholic priest, becomes instrumental in governing the fate of Roseanne’s life. When her father is ignominiously reduced to the post of rat catcher, the message delivered by Father Gaunt, Roseanne’s life begins to change radically.

The demotion takes its toll on the family and Roseanne is in danger of losing both of her parents, her father to depression and her mother to madness.

Father Gaunt recommends that Roseanne, as she is a pretty girl, marries the man who has replaced her father at the graveyard, an unattractive man who is a lot older than Roseanne, but Roseanne prefers to find work herself and becomes a waitress at the Cairo Cafe. However, this refusal has repercussions of the worst kind and she finds herself in a threatening situation with the man who she refused to marry.

Luckily, Roseanne is saved and her life gains more stability when she finds love with Tom McNulty who she marries. For some time, she finds happiness and stability, her love for Tom being reciprocated and passionate.

However, life is not meant to be easy for Roseanne and she finds herself alone and ostracised due to a foolish decision, acted upon without real thought as to how it would be perceived by others and has to struggle through life on her own.

Dr. Grene’s narrative is also troubled and in his notebook, we see that he is struggling with a difficult marriage, one where his wife is suffering from depression and has withdrawn completely from their relationship. Dr. Grene, for all of his psychological training, does not know how to navigate this and we are privy to his thoughts and feelings on its decline and the distress it is causing him.

How she ends up in Roscommon is the crux of the book and Barry leads you to it through the intertwined narratives of Roseanne and Dr. Grene, Roseanne revealing details of her story by degrees while Dr. Grene in his search for Roseanne’s records finds details which require clarification from Roseanne as they conflict with what he has discovered from her.

Eventually, Roseanne’s story is revealed and it is one where you feel like her life has, to some extent, not been her own: that the people who she has encountered have exerted, through the strength of their opinion and their standing in the community, undue influence over the events in her life. That’s not to say that she is not a strong woman though as she endures in the face of everything to live a long life; however, it feels like it is not one of her choosing.

Barry has, apparently, written a series of books about the McNulty family and I would be interested to read others by him as he is a consummate storyteller and the backdrop of the Irish struggles is one of which I know little but provides a taut and tense atmosphere in which to set his books. If they are as good as this, they will be good reads indeed.

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