Sunday, January 23, 2011

Review: The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

Reviewed by Meagan

Published: 2008

It's about: This novel alternates between the first person perspectives of Roseanne, a patient at the Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital in Ireland, and Dr. Grene, the head psychiatrist of the facility. Roscommon is closing down and the new facility does not have enough beds to accommodate all of the patients so Dr. Grene must evaluate who can be released. It is easy to make a decision for most of the patients, but Roseanne is an enigma. She's been at the hospital for over fifty years, and is so old not even she can reliably remember when or where she was born. And rats have gotten to the records of her admission. Dr. Grene attempts to interview her to find out why she is at the hospital, but to Roseanne, the tiny room in the hospital has become her home and she is suspicious and resistant to Dr. Grene's questioning. However, she still feels the need to tell her story, so she secretly begins writing her personal history, which becomes a fascinating history of the social, political and religious conflicts that span across 20th century Ireland. As Dr. Grene deepens his investigation and discovers 'facts' about Roseanne the reader is left to ponder whose truth is correct, and does it matter?

I thought: I picked up this book solely on the merit that was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker prize because I find books in that category to be challenging and this was no exception. The writing is fantastic throughout and I would recommend it for the language alone. The plot was slow to build and it took me a little while to get into it, but once I understood the rhythm it was hard to put down. Both Roseanne and Dr. Grene are intriguing characters and as their past histories were unveiled and then unravelled I was enthralled. I also loved the treatment of Irish history and was shocked by both my lack of knowledge on events so recently passed and my immediate desire to learn more. However, I do have one critique, and it is big enough that I don't think I can quite recommend it for the shelf: the ending. I don't want to give anything away so I'm going to be irritatingly vague but I feel like it was too pat, too predictable, and not in keeping with the--for lack of a better description--exquisite tragedy and mystery of the rest of the novel. I do think though, that it is a novel I will save to reread in a few years to see if my opinion has changed.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf or Rubbish Bin? In Between. (I hope this doesn't dissuade you though. I really do think it's worth the read and would love to hear your thoughts if you have read it--I think this may be a novel that runs the gamut.)

Reading Recommendations: The start of this novel is extremely slow, but don't let it dissuade you. As I got further along the slow start seemed almost essential to the tone of the book.

Warnings: Some reference to violence, attempted violence against women, and war but nothing too overt.

Favorite excerpts: I'm going to have to list a few to give you a taste for the writing:

Too much thinking on death. Yet it is the music of our time.

They say the old at least have their memories. I am no so sure that is always a good thing. I am trying to be faithful to what is in my head. I hope it is trying also to be faithful to me.

The real comfort is that history of the world contains so much grief that my small griefs are edged out, and are only cinders at the borders of the fire.

I wonder why anything is.

After all the world is indeed beautiful and if we were any other creature than man we might be continuously happy in it.

As I do not seem able much to heal, then maybe I can simply be a responsible witness to the miracle of the ordinary soul.

It is very difficult to be a hero without an audience, although, in a sense, we are each the hero of a peculiar, half-ruined film called our life.

That is because at the close of the day the ship we sail in is the soul, not the body.

What I'm reading next: The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield