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The Secret Scripture (2008)

by Sebastian Barry

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: McNulty Family (4)

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2,6661474,583 (3.86)283
Nearing her one-hundredth birthday, Roseanne McNulty faces an uncertain future, as the Roscommon Regional Mental hospital where she's spent the best part of her adult life prepares for closure. Over the weeks leading up to this upheaval, she talks often with her psychiatrist Dr Grene, and their relationship intensifies and complicates. Told through their respective journals, the story that emerges is at once shocking and deeply beautiful. Refracted through the haze of memory and retelling, Roseanne's story becomes an alternative, secret history of Ireland's changing character and the story of a life blighted by terrible mistreatment and ignorance, and yet marked still by love and passion and hope.… (more)
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English (138)  Dutch (5)  French (1)  Italian (1)  Catalan (1)  Spanish (1)  All languages (147)
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Secret - not known or seen or meant to be seen by others.
Scripture - a body of writings considered sacred or authoritative


A truth, that is sacred, meant only for yourself. This is the heart of Sebastian Barry’s book, The Secret Scripture for the story is given to us as the final attempt of 100 year-old Roseanne McNulty, a long-term inmate of the Roscommon Mental Asylum, to put to paper her recollections of her life; how she came to be imprisoned for 70 years and why.

The place where I was born was a cold town, we are told on page one, and we learn that the coldness was as much of heart as of weather. This is Ireland in tumult and war--civil war and religious war--and survival is a fragile and difficult thing. Caught in this tumult is young and beautiful Roseanne, and while fate deals her unconscionable blows and she makes questionable choices, she finds no solace or sucor from the priest, Fr. Gaunt, because she is not Catholic but Presbyterian.

This horrible man lives up to his name. His personality is bony, angular, pinched. He sees no good in those around him and delights, I believe, in his power over the helpless and vulnerable. He is not a man of God, but a man of Satan, austere and callous. That Roseanne strives to remember him in a better light, to give him the benefit of the doubt, proves her to be a better woman than I. I would have hated him with every fiber of my being.

Then there is Dr. Grene, a psychiatrist who is charged with assessing the inmates of the asylum to determine if they are indeed insane and whether they should be released or housed in the new facility that is being built to replace the dilapidated Roscommon. After years of being housed and neglected, Roseanne is being asked to revive her memory of her short life outside those walls, and Dr. Grene begins to have an interest in who she was/is beyond being his charge. Needless to say, he learns more from Roseanne than she does from him.

Today was the day she might have told me everything, and today was the day I opted myself for her silence, her privacy. Because it strikes me there is something greater than judgement. I think it is called mercy.

The question becomes What is truth? Whose truth matters? Are there different truths depending on where you stand, where your point of reference is? After all, the terrain looks quite different if you view it from the top of a mountain than if you are standing on the shore, although the point on the map might be exactly the same.

Unfathomable. Fathoms. I wonder is that the difficulty, that my memories and my imaginings are lying deeply in the same place? Or one on top of the other like layers of shells and sand in a piece of limestone, so that they have both become the same element, and I cannot distinguish one from the other with any ease, unless it is from close, close looking?

Who can tell us the truth, if the only person who was there and knows it is unsure of its veracity? And is injustice less unjust if someone can supply the reasons the injustice was done?

What is wrong about her account if she sincerely believes it? Is not most history written in a sort of wayward insincerity? I suspect so.

Therein lies the rub, as Hamlet would say. None of us ever knows the other man’s truth. But what could be worse than being on the wrong side of another man’s truth and finding yourself caged for seventy years as a result. Life snatched from you so callously that your greatest joy becomes imagining the coming of spring and the blooming of snowdrops and daffodils.

This is a powerful, intense book, with a message that should resonate with anyone. It is not perfect. I believe most of us will not be surprised by the "twist" at the end; I was not. However, it was laced with important concepts and questions. I marked so many passages that I seemed to have a colored marker on every other page. I stayed up until 2:00 in the morning to finish and never felt the lack of sleep. I feel drained and unable to move on to the next book today. I loved it. ( )
  mattorsara | Aug 11, 2022 |
I understand this is possibly one of three novels starring the McNulty family, so perhaps reading them all would be more fulfilling. In this volume, the story of Roseanne is unsurprising given the way women have been treated historically, yet disturbing and anger inducing to a modern-day female audience, and I hope a male one. Ultimately a sad tale, and atmospherically put together. Unfortunately, although I empathise with Roseanne’s plight, I didn’t connect with her as much as I would have liked, and about halfway through I lagged and struggled, meaning this took me far longer to finish than it should have. Still, it’s well plotted, with an end that will surprise some (though I guessed the outcome, thinking the author surely wouldn’t choose it); therefore, will satisfy some, annoy others. It’s a good book, but one I could take or leave. ( )
  SharonMariaBidwell | May 10, 2022 |
Told from two different angles, both of whom are unreliable narrators.[return][return]Roseanne, an elderly woman of not-quite-determined age has been living in an Irish mental hospital for at least 60 years. Dr Grene, nearing retirement, tries to assess Roseanne as the hospital is about to be relocated and he needs to assess where she should go. [return][return]In secret Roseanne starts to write her history, and running along side this you get to hear what Dr Grene finds out about her from various sources. It's a turbulent time in Ireland, the civil war is raging to be followed by WW2. Non Catholics are viewed by suspicion, the population are in thrall to the Catholic priests, who in turn believe their word is law and they are not to be ignored. Women who do not submit and conform (especially if they are pretty or sexually aware) are to be downtrodden, and if necessary committed to an asylum.[return][return]Roseanne tells her own version of her young life and what led to her committal to the asylum. Grene finds the alternate version, and in himself finds that he has put his own version of the truth, so recognises that noone's recollection is perfect. He also learns some shocking and surprising truths in the end.[return][return]Lovely, occasionally painful (it reminds me of my cultural heritage, and pushes a set of buttons in me that makes me very angry - primarily directed against the Catholic church and Irish priests in particular!), this has been catching my eye several times over the last few years and am now glad have read it ( )
  nordie | Apr 18, 2022 |
Although it’s been several days since I finished reading this book, I have been avoiding writing a review. I realise now that that’s because to write a review I have to notice how I am feeling when I think about the book, and how I am feeling as I do is that I want to cry.

Sebastian Barry paints a very complete picture of the interiors of two people coming to an enormous turning point in their lives. Rosanne, at 100 years old, has lived in an institution for much of her life. Dr. Grene has overseen her institutionalisation for several decades. As the time grows near to close down the hospital and move remaining patients to a smaller building, thus necessitating a cull, he needs to assess each patient's candidacy for release. In the process he finds himself spending more and more time in the presence of this elderly woman, and attempting to reconstruct her story, one which she refuses to tell.

They both must explore her past: what led to her incarceration, and whether or not it had occurred because she was truly mentally ill or if it had been provoked for other reasons and she should be freed.

Roseanne is a beautiful presence. I loved spending time in her head. Even with the very limited sphere of life she is consigned to she is able to find interest and joy. The narrative of course eventually reveals a painful story and my sorrow at what this woman endured, what so many of us have endured in one way or another, is real and intense.

I am not at all sorry I read this beautiful Irish book, and I was absorbed by it the entire time I read. It is not a complete tragedy, but if this book doesn’t spark your compassion, I’m not sure what would. ( )
1 vote thesmellofbooks | Sep 6, 2021 |
"There is seldom a difficulty with religion where there is friendship."

Religion and politics are rarely cosy bedfellows and nowhere during the 20th century in Western Europe is this more evident than in Ireland with its sectarianism. In "The Secret Scripture" Barry tries to expose some very painful truths done to the country and its inhabitants in the name of religion.

Set in Sligo the narration is shared between Roseanne McNulty, a centurion who has spent over sixty years in a psychiatric institution, and her psychiatrist Dr Grene. Roseanne's records have long been lost but as the hospital nears closure, Dr Grene must try to assess whether or not she can be rehabilitated back 'into the community'.

Roseanne is reluctant to confide in Dr Grene but writes down her secrets and hides them under the floorboards. She is an old lady with secrets to hide, whose memories may not be truly accurate and who may or may not have been committed for good reason. What is not in any doubt is that she has been the victim of those who should have had her welfare in mind. Roseanne’s story is uncomfortable because although she may be fictional, her situation is not.

Roseanne comes from a Presbyterian family, her mother is English and when her father, who had once been a Police officer, dies she finds herself with nobody to speak for her. Even the reader is encouraged to distrust her, her view of events is undermined by what scraps of documentation remain. Dr Grene must decide which of his patients were committed on social rather than medical grounds.

The scars of sectarianism run deep in Ireland and Roseanne is an obvious metaphor for the country itself. She too bears the scars of crimes wrought by religion, she sought sanctuary in marriage to the man she loved but her past and the local priest would not let her. Roseanne's own faith is disregarded and she suffers because she refuses to convert to Catholicism.

Whilst it's easy to see Roseanne's story as simply a tale of how local priests were often omnipotent and that women were often the victims of their power, this book is also a timely reminder that the old too have stories of their own. They may now live in a home, have no immediate family to visit them but they too have histories, loves, losses, beliefs and therefore deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

"We are never old to ourselves. That is because at the close of the day the ship we sail in is the soul, not the body."

I should point out that this is actually the fourth in a series about the McNulty family and I haven't read any of the previous books. This may influence my opinion but I still think that this book stands on its own merits. This is a book that leaves you with as many questions as answers and whilst I found the ending as the author tries to tie up the loose endings too neat and twee for my taste it was still well written. It also annoyed me that Dr Grene ultimately decided to keep the truth from Roseanne at the end like so many men who had preceded him.

It isn't always any easy tale to read, some of the events are quite disturbing and heart-rending yet there is also love and hope, that events within it can one day be consigned to the history books. ( )
  PilgrimJess | Apr 6, 2021 |
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» Add other authors (7 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Barry, Sebastianprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Hogan, StephenReadersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Janzon, Leifsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jonkers, JohannesTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
McCaddon, WandaReadersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rosenbloom, MiriamCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Xavier, PatríciaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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Epigraph
The greatest imperfection is in out inward sight that is to be ghosts unto our own eyes.
--Sir Thomas Browne Christian Morals

Of the numbers who study or at least read history, how few derive any advantage from their labours! . . . Besides there is much uncertainty even in the best authenticated ancient and modern histories; and that love of truth, which in some minds is innate and immutable, necessarily leads to a love of secret memoirs and private anecdotes.
--Maria Edgeworth, Preface to Castle Rackrent
Dedication
For Margaret Synge
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The world begins anew with every birth, my father used to say.
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Nearing her one-hundredth birthday, Roseanne McNulty faces an uncertain future, as the Roscommon Regional Mental hospital where she's spent the best part of her adult life prepares for closure. Over the weeks leading up to this upheaval, she talks often with her psychiatrist Dr Grene, and their relationship intensifies and complicates. Told through their respective journals, the story that emerges is at once shocking and deeply beautiful. Refracted through the haze of memory and retelling, Roseanne's story becomes an alternative, secret history of Ireland's changing character and the story of a life blighted by terrible mistreatment and ignorance, and yet marked still by love and passion and hope.

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Nearing her one-hundredth birthday, Roseanne McNulty faces an uncertain future, as the Roscommon Regional Mental hospital where she's spent the best part of her adult life prepares for closure. Over the weeks leading up to this upheaval, she talks often with her psychiatrist Dr. Grene, and their relationship intensifies and complicates. Told through their respective journals, the story that emerges is at once shocking and deeply beautiful. Refracted through the haze of memory and retelling, Roseanne's story becomes an alternative, secret history of Ireland's changing character and the story of a life blighted by terrible mistreatment and ignorance, and yet marked still by love and passion and hope.

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