The Secret Scripture – Sebastian Barry. A book Club choice

I admit that I am a bit late to the party with this one, which surfaced as a choice for our Book Club. I also admit that, had it been my choice, I probably would not have fought on with it…

This is a book not overloaded with humour and optimism, at least in the first section or two. There is a fairly high body count, and a depressing air about the whole proceedings. A patient in a mental hospital is recording the life that she remembers, over about a hundred years. The fact that she grew up in an Ireland beset by the Troubles means that family history, the religion of birth, and following certain occupations can mark a person down regardless of beauty, intelligence or love. She writes of a loving father, a disturbed mother, and events in her early life that shake her existence. At the same time she pens her account, she is being assessed for transfer by Dr. Grene, who takes an interest in this, his oldest patient whose life story becomes a welcome distraction from his rocky marriage.

So far so dismal…but there is some beautiful writing here. Roseanne draws lovely pictures from her memory of coastal scenery, exciting Saturday nights at the local dance hall, and a loving if eccentric father. The account shifts, changes, as the nature of her memories, the bewilderment at what occurred, takes over. The interpretations and fact finding of the doctor proceed which throw doubt on Roseanne’s veracity. Alongside all this is the background of religious turmoil and very real threats to everyone in the town as a result of the division between Protestant and Catholic, rebellion and government.

This book was a brilliant choice for a book club in that there is a lot to discuss, especially in the light of memories of Ireland in the troubles. It is also a fascinating account of the differences of memory and perspective when compared to the hard facts of what happened to individuals in the face of condemnation of women, often carried out by representatives of the established church. The most frightening character in the book is Father Gaunt, who personifies the power of the Catholic church in people’s lives, a character thoughtfully drawn.

There are little patches of humour and good feeling in this book, and I was urged to keep going when I threatened to give up in the face of disaster and dismay in the early part of the novel. I felt the ending was a bit obvious, but nonetheless well rounded and leaving some questions hanging which provided more discussion points. The writing and imagery of this book is worth exploring. I believe that some of the characters appear in the author’s other books, so it may be good to track them down. Altogether a book which evokes strong feelings, is a good read, but frankly is not the most cheerful read.