A lyrical account of centenarian Roseanne McNulty’s life in rural Ireland, The Secret Scripture is both compelling and enlightening.
Long time resident of Roscommon mental hospital, Roseanne’s testimony of life prior to incarceration is interweaved with that of psychiatrist, Dr Grene. The old, decrepit Victorian hospital is soon to be demolished. With fewer available beds in the new building, Grene is to determine which patients can be released into the community.
Grene is particularly intrigued by Roseanne’s case. Like many of the older patients under his care, the origins of her confinement are questionable, not helped by records having been destroyed by fire twenty years earlier. Sensitive to the known facts contained within remaining official reports (infanticide, nymphomania (!), adultery) and her age, Grene treads lightly with his questioning. But, unknown to the doctor, she is secretly writing her own recollections.
Ireland’s malignant history is ever present in Barry’s writing – and The Secret Scripture is no different. The young Roseanne was a great beauty but as a Presbyterian living in Catholic Ireland in the 1920s, she was confronted with militant Irish nationalism and sectarianism, incurable enmities and the loss of innocence and joy. Even her marriage to Tom McNulty was short-lived and tragic, a victim of the power of the Irish Catholic Church. Father Gaunt (later Bishop) is a symbol of the perversion and bigotry of the church at that time over the lives and the moral judgements of its flock. Morality has its own civil wars, with its own victims in their own time and place.
It’s a heart-rending story, a work of fiction exploring memory and its effect on history and truth. Barry himself throws in the question of just how much of Roseanne’s narrative is truthful. No one has the monopoly on truth… Not even myself, and that is a vexing and worrying thought. And her recollections certainly vary from those official reports. But truth (at least in part) is Grene’s responsibility: or at least a different version. The one thing that is fatal in the reading of impromptu history is a wrongful desire for accuracy. There is no such thing.
And Grene certainly reveals an unexpected new truth at the end of The Secret Scripture.
It’s lucid and slow-paced, even though Roseanne’s story is livid and urgent. Barry’s descriptive prose is poetic yet accessible, his commentary on this period of Irish history vivid but humane. The Secret Scripture was Sebastian Barry’s second Booker Prize shortlisting (A Long Long Way was the first in 2004), but it lost out to Aravind Adiga and The White Tiger.