Irish poet, novelist, and playwright Sebastian Barry recently won the Costa Prize (previously the Whitbread Prize) for The Secret Scripture, which reintroduces themes and settings from his earlier novel, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty (1998). He is also author of A Long Long Way (2005), a Booker Prize finalist.
The Story: Centenarian Roseanne McNulty has decided to record her life story, "for dearly would I love now to leave an account, some kind of brittle and honest-minded history of myself." However, having spent the last several decades at the Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital in Ireland, she is forced to scribble her memoirs on scavenged scraps of paper and hide them under floorboards. When the crumbling institution is condemned, head psychiatrist Dr. William Grene, who writes a parallel narrative, must determine which patients will be transferred to another facility and which will be released. He is convinced that Roseanne is sane, but when he tries to prove it during their interviews, a sly cat-and-mouse game ensues.
Viking. 304 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0670019403
"He writes with a dramatist’s timing and a poet’s exactitude. … The result is a richly allusive and haunting text that is nevertheless jagged enough to avoid the anaesthetic of high lyricism." Joseph O’Connor
"The key to this book is the music of its language, which derives not from any high-toned verbiage, but from Barry’s flawless ear for words as sounds. … The Secret Scripture is a wondrous novel, a long, sad aria about how very much that fragile thing called love can not only endure, but actually triumph over." Frank Wilson
"[Roseanne’s] voice, at once elegiac, sardonic, enraged and deeply wounded, is a marvel. … This is a powerful story, and … Barry … tells it compellingly." Carole Goldberg
New York Times
"In Mr. Barry’s new novel [Irish] history is symbolized by a secret. And it is revealed to the reader as if a thread were being slowly unraveled from the cocoon of a silkworm to expose at its core a terrible truth." Dinitia Smith
NY Times Book Review
"Many angelic references and much religious imagery are to be found here (slaughtered lambs, for example), but at the root of it all is the lambent quality of experience, not religion per se. Much of the real joy of reading Barry is in the bobbing freshet of his language." Art Winslow
"The ending, alas, teeters on the verge of melodrama, but there is so much good writing in the preceding chapters that one readily forgives the author. In Roseanne McNulty—sly, confused, defiant, passionate—Sebastian Barry has created one of the most memorable narrators in recent fiction." David Robson
"The nature of Barry’s first-person narratives, and the uncertainty he is so purposefully trying to create, sometimes left me a little confused. But, for the most part, that only gave me more in common with his characters, and, when I reached the last page, I did feel that I had shared a profound experience with each of them." Margot Livesey
Again and again the critics cited Barry’s lovely, musical language as one of the greatest treasures of The Secret Scripture. He skillfully creates two distinct voices—Roseanne’s in her darkly funny memoirs and Dr. Grene’s as he records his observations in his commonplace book—in this shifting, dual narrative. As with most of his work, Barry’s characters’ lives play out against Ireland’s troubled history, "a malignant omnipresence" (Guardian), while he cleverly explores the unreliable nature of the past, filtered as it is through human perception and memory. Though one critic claimed that her unfamiliarity with Irish history caused her some initial confusion and the Telegraph pronounced the ending somewhat melodramatic, most critics loved this haunting and beautiful novel.
POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!
The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.
• The Secret Scripture is told by two narrators, with each in the first person. How does this affect your relationship with Roseanne McNulty and Dr Grene? Do you think the novel would have worked as well if told in the third person?
• At least one of The Secret Scripture’s narrators has the potential to be an ‘unreliable narrator’. In interview, Sebastian Barry has said that 'the true unreliability of everything written down utterly fascinates me’. How does this affect your reading of the novel?
• We never have Roseanne or Dr Grene described to us, as we are reading from their point of view. How does Sebastian Barry create a sense of them without being able to tell the reader about them directly?
• Which of the characters do you think is better drawn? Do you feel closer to Roseanne or Dr Grene? And do you think that this is because of their story or because of how they tell their story?
• The use of the diary or memoir is a traditional format for storytellers. Can you think of other novels where this has been used? How has Sebastian Barry kept this technique fresh for modern day readers? Does the story feel vibrant to you, particularly the historical sections?
• Roseanne could be seen as a personification of Ireland, given the way that her history has spanned Ireland in the 20th century. Do you think that this is deliberate on Sebastian Barry’s part? If so, what do you think he is saying about modern-day Ireland?
• The Secret Scripture dovetails with Barry’s previous novel The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty (1998). Have you read this book? If so, did it affect your perspective of the story compared to others in the group who may not have done? If you have not read the book, do you think you are likely to go back to it now?
• The novel explores the idea of writing your experiences down being able to help you to make sense of the past. Have you ever kept a diary? If so, did you find it therapeutic? If you have not kept one, would this novel motivate you to record your experiences?
• The dramatic plot twist at the end of the novel has divided both critics and prize judges. What did you think of it? Did you find it too melodramatic, or did you think it tied up the loose ends of the story in a satisfactory way?
• Sebastian Barry’s writing style is extremely poetic, and he makes great use of colourful metaphors and similes. Did you find this realistic coming from a voice such as Roseanne’s? Were there any descriptions in particular that you found particularly effective, or moving?
• There is frequent use of religious imagery in the novel, for example ‘slaughtered lambs’ and ‘immaculate tears’. How does this affect the impact that these scenes have?
• Roseanne is a woman almost destroyed by the politics and misogyny of Ireland during her lifetime. Do you think that Sebastian Barry is passing comment on that era, or merely trying to create vivid characters and a compelling story?
• Sebastian Barry is known as a chronicler of Ireland’s history. He has said that he is ‘trying to rescue my characters from the cold hand of history and from the silences that surround certain turbulent periods in our own history.' Do you think he has done this successfully with The Secret Scripture?
• The Steward of Christendom and The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty are both about the dislocations (physical and otherwise) of loyalist Irish people during the political upheavals of the early 20th century. How do you think that The Secret Scripture continues this theme?