Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Review: The Secret Scripture

Author:  Sebastian Barry
Format: audio 9 hrs, 45 min; 320 pgs equivalent
Characters: Roseann Clear McNulty, Dr. Grene
Subject: Mental Illness, Catholic Church
Setting: Sligo Ireland 1930 to present
Genre: fiction
Source: public library audio download
Challenge: SYLL, Audio books

A powerful, incredible book.  Set in an insane asylum, the Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital in Sligo Ireland, this is the story of one of its patients, 100 year old Roseann McNulty and her psychiatrist Dr. Grene.  The hospital is slated for demolition shortly, and Dr. Grene must evaluate his patients to see if they should be moved to another institution or can be 'turned loose' into Society.  Unbeknownst to the other, each is keeping a diary, writing a scripture if you will.  Hers is the story of her life, as she remembers it, and it appears she has not previously shared this information with any of the staff. The good doctor, on the other hand, while struggling with grief for his recently deceased wife, feels a great fondness for Roseann, and tries gently to come to an understanding of how she came to be there, since she seems perfectly sane to him.  Naturally, he feels a great reluctance to turn out a 100 year old woman who has no place to go, and seemingly no living relatives.  In the meantime, his discovery of a document written by a priest who knew Roseann, which paints a very different picture from what she seems to be telling him (and the reader in her secret diary) adds to his dilemma and helps build the tension.

As they both struggle through the story of Ireland's politics and religious wars and the iron grip the Catholic Church held on the morals of the town, as they review and remember long lost family members and events in their past, their stories-hers working from the start, his working backward--come to an explosive and (for me) unexpected conclusion at the very end of the book.

This is an exquisite, elegant story of love, betrayal, treachery, secrets kept, secrets revealed, secrets misunderstood, and the ultimate goodness of a few people who persist in goodness to bring the story to its incredible climax. I really didn't see it coming, which made it all the more satisfying. It's difficult to say much more without spoiling a beautiful story.

Sebastian Barry is a two time nominee for the Man Booker Prize.


  1. What a wonderful idea for a story. It is certainly going on my endless TBR list. I love stories that have unexpected surprise twists.

  2. I am rather hesitant about Ireland based books..especially if written by an Irishman, because no one has as bleak view of Ireland's past like as Irish writer. It a real love/hate thing the Irish have going sometimes.


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