I discovered a copy of Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture sitting on the communal bookcase in my London flat. I fancied reading something quite light – not too arduous – and after a cursory flick through the pages (noting the rather large print) thought that this book would fit the bill.
I was slightly disappointed, however, when I actually started reading the book, as it quickly dawned on me that this novel is anything but superficial. In fact, from the first page I found it quite difficult to grasp, mainly as a result of the myriad of references to Irish history, which– shamefully – I failed to recognise time and again.
Two different people narrate the novel: Roseanne McNulty, a centenarian who – despite once being a beautiful, independent young woman – has spent a large of part of her life as a patient at Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital. The second person who narrates the novel is a psychiatrist, Dr. Grene who has been given the task of assessing patients to judge whether they can return to society ahead of the hospital’s imminent closure.
As the pair embark on a mission to retell tales from the past, Roseanne and Dr. Grene form an unlikely and in no way straightforward bond. It is a relationship that takes shape throughout the novel, before undergoing a sudden twist just as a reader thinks the plot couldn’t get any more complex.
Whilst the second half of The Secret Scripture is transfixing, I did have to work hard to actually get there. I found the first couple of chapters pretty hard going, and difficult to engage with. The thing that kept me reading despite the initial doubts was Sebastian Barry’s writing style. The Irish writer is not just a famous novelist, but also a renowned poet and playwright. His talent for writing in a poetic, evocative way is what saved me from the temptation of putting this book down before realizing its full potential.