Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Sebastian Barry – Faber & Faber 0 $37.99

Reviewed by The Bookman on Radio New Zeland National yesterday

This is a sad and enormously moving story about a lonely woman, Roseanne McNulty, about whom little is known, now nearly 100 years old and living in Roscommon Mental Hospital. Somehow it seems appropriate that it is so sad because indirectly it is also the story of Ireland in the 20th century and that history is itself not the happiest tale with the country splintered by civil war following the 1922 Irish Treaty that partitioned the country into north & south.
The story opens in 2007 with Roseanne McNulty facing an uncertain future as Roscommon Mental Hospital, where she has spent the most part of her adult life, is about to be demolished. The hospital’s chief psychiatrist, Dr.Grene, is to evaluate whether Roseanne should be released into the general population.

In the weeks leading up to the upheaval Dr.Grene and Roseanne have many meetings and spend hours talking, with Dr.Grene being increasingly drawn to Roseanne becoming determined to learn the truth of her internment.

The Secret Scripture of the title alludes to the respective journals of our two protagonists. The story is set in the west of Ireland, mainly in Sligo some 120 miles west of Belfast with a chunk of the story taking place in the 1920’s. Sligo along with the rest of the country is deeply divided at this time. Roseanne’s greatly loved Dad, Jo Clear is a Presbyterian and while being respected by the town’s largely Catholic population he is not fully accepted. As a young woman Roseanne works is a café in the town, then marries the highly personable band leader Tom McNulty. Sadly, after a brief period of happiness during a time noted for its murder, betrayal and divisiveness things begin to go badly wrong and due to the meddling of a rather loathsome priest, Father Gaunt, Roseanne’s marriage is annulled and she eventually ends up in the mental hospital. How this all happens is revealed in her journals; what a shocking, haunting and passionate story it proves to be.

Sebastian Barry is a noted contemporary Irish writer, born and educated in Dublin, a graduate of Trinity College and is probably best known as a playwright although this is his fourth novel with his title preceding this one, A Long Long Way (2005) being shortlisted for both the Man Booker Prize and the Dublin International Impac Prize. I will not be at all surprised if The Secret Scripture enjoys similar accolades, watch for it on the longlist tomorrow.

It is an outstanding literary novel that I found poignant, disturbing, poetic, sad, and ultimately deeply satisfying with a quite wonderful twist at the end. A winner.
Just announced as one of the titles on the Man Booker Prize longlist!

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