Saturday, February 5, 2011

REVIEW: The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

Long time patient of the Roscommon mental institution in County Sligo, Ireland, Roseanne McNulty nears her 100th year. Dr. Grene, head psychiatrist of Roscommon, is in the unenviable position of determining the reasons some of his patients were committed and whether they should remain institutionalized. The much neglected institution is about to be condemned and limited spacing is available in the new hospital. Dr. Grene has no trouble making determinations for most of his patients, but Roseanne remains an enigma. Unwilling to share her story with him it is up to Dr. Grene to delve into Roseanne's past and find out how she came to be there and whether she should remain.

The narrative switches between Roseanne and Dr. Grene with Roseanne's story being told in flashbacks to her youth in County Sligo. Roseanne suffers many traumas growing up including the death of her beloved father and taking care of her mentally ill mother. When her father is no longer around to protect her she draws the ire of misogynistic Catholic priest Father Gaunt who constantly interferes with her life. When Roseanne meets Tom McNulty and falls in love, she thinks her fortunes have changed but due to the interference of Father Gaunt and the hatred of her mother-in-law this is not to be.

Fast Forwarding to the present we have Dr. Grene who realizes he never really got to know Roseanne or any of his patients even though he had been treating them for years. Roseanne, although unwilling to share her past with Dr. Grene, pens her story when no one is around and hides it under the floorboards for later discovery.

First, I love Sebastian Barry's writing style. It is very lyrical and I was drawn in by it from the very beginning. The recollections from Roseanne of her childhood and life as a young woman were engrossing. I liked how Roseanne's version would unfold and then Dr. Grene would uncover a snip it of her story and both would have similar elements but be completely different. The way Roseanne was treated by Father Gaunt and shut away from society was truly sad. The story was interesting and the characters were likable. There is a downside that prevented this from being a five star read: the ending. It was predictable. I had the identity of the mental institution's janitor "John Kane" figured out and the ending itself figured out 2/3 of the way through the book. Unfortunately, since I knew how it would end it was kind of a let down.

Although no ah ha! moment was to be had at the end, I still think it was completely worth the read. This book won the 2008 Costa Book of the Year Award, the 2009 Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year, the 2009 Independent Bookshops Book Award, the 2009 James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction), and the 2009 Trubidy Show Listeners' Choice Book of the Year. It was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, the 2009 Los Angeles Times Book Prize (Fiction), the 2009 Prix Fémina Etranger (France), and the 2010 Irish Book of the Decade (Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards).

This book is from my own personal library

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