The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry
Barry’s last book, A Long Long Way, was initially impressive—largely because of his skill with language—but I lost interest and put it down. This one might have met the same fate had I not agreed to discuss it with a book group. It’s beautifully written, but frankly I’m tired of skillful Irish narratives about the plight of the poor in
The best thing about this book is Rosanne’s narrative. The book consists of two intertwined narratives: the story of her life that Rosanne, a 100 year old inmate of a mental institution in Roscommon, writes and hides under a floorboard and that of Dr Grene, the hospital’s psychiatrist, who has to determine which inmates could be released to the outside world. Grene, is Irish, but grew up in
Rosanne was raised a Protestant. She adored her father who was always suspect in Sligo because of his religion, who may or may not have been police under English rule and who was relegated to jobs like cemetery keeper and rat catcher (she tells a harrowing tale of how he eliminated rats in an orphanage with something that was flammable and how a rat, coming down a chimney into a fire, fled burning, igniting a fire in which 20-some young girls were killed). Her father is eventually killed by his enemies and Rosanne is left alone with her mentally ill mother. She takes a job in a tea shop to support them both. Because she’s a beautiful girl, the local priest wants to find her a husband—to marry her to a Catholic and render her, and the community, “safe”. She refuses and eventually marries Tom McNulty who doesn’t care that she’s protestant. His mother does—it’s an old story—and connives with the priest to have the marriage annulled. Years later, Rosanne bears a child out of wedlock after spending one night with her husband’s errant brother (hero of an earlier novel). She appeals to Mrs. McNulty for help, is turned down and bears her child on the beach in a storm. An ambulance materializes to rescue her but not the child and she’s committed with her mother to the Sligo Asylum (and eventually moved to Roscommon).
It’s an old story—that of the priest so frightened of a young woman’s beauty that he has to do her in, acting in concert with an oh-so-pious mother, but it’s been told again and again. This one has a completely unbelievable twist at the end that’s all the more unforgivable because the discerning reader figures it out before the end.