Sunday, July 12, 2009

TSS - The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

The Secret Scripture
By Sebastian Barry
Faber and Faber, 2008
300 pages

Summary from PW:

The latest from Barry (whose A Long Way was shortlisted for the 2005 Booker) pits two contradictory narratives against each other in an attempt to solve the mystery of a 100-year-old mental patient. That patient, Roseanne McNulty, decides to undertake an autobiography and writes of an ill-fated childhood spent with her father, Joe Clear. A cemetery superintendent, Joe is drawn into Ireland's 1922 civil war when a group of irregulars brings a slain comrade to the cemetery and are discovered by a division of Free-Staters. Meanwhile, Roseanne's psychiatrist, Dr. Grene, investigating Roseanne's original commitment in preparation for her transfer to a new hospital, discovers through the papers of the local parish priest, Fr. Gaunt, that Roseanne's father was actually a police sergeant in the Royal Irish Constabulary. The mysteries multiply when Roseanne reveals that Fr. Gaunt annulled her marriage after glimpsing her in the company of another man; Gaunt's official charge was nymphomania, and the cumulative fallout led to a string of tragedies. Written in captivating, lyrical prose, Barry's novel is both a sparkling literary puzzle and a stark cautionary tale of corrupted power.

My thoughts:

The premise of contradictory narratives is always intriguing. As they say, there are two sides two every story... and the truth often lies somewhere in between. In The Secret Scripture, these narratives slowly unfold to give us a picture of 100 year old Roseanne McNulty's life.
"For history as far as I can see is not the arrangement of what happens, in sequence and in truth, but a fabulous arrangement of surmises and guesses held up as a banner against the assault of withering truth." page 55
Within the first few pages, the beauty of Barry's lyrical prose was obvious, but I just wasn't able to give it my full attention. The Secret Scripture is indeed a wonderful book, but with the hustle and bustle of year-end school activities, I often went for days without picking it up.

There were numerous passages I marked for gorgeous writing or profound thoughts, but I'll share these three:

Roseanne, on her mother:
"Please remember that my mother was very beautiful, though perhaps not so beautiful now, as her silence had found an echo in some bleak thin cloth that seemed to be pulled over the skin of her face. She was like a painting with its varnish darkening, obscuring the beauty of the work." page 66
On happiness:
"It is always worth itemising happiness, there is so much of the other thing in a life, you had better put down the markers for happiness while you can. When I was in that state, everything looked beautiful to me, the rain slicing down looked like silver to me, everything was of interest to me, everyone seemed at ease with me, even those slit-eyed cornerboys of Sligo, with the yellow fingers from the coffin nails they smoked, the yellow stain above their lips where the fag was stuck in permanent." page 141
On memory:
" Memory, I must suppose, if it is neglected becomes like a box room, or a lumber room in an old house, the contents jumbled about, maybe not only from neglect but also from too much haphazard searching in them, and things to boot thrown in that don't belong there... It makes me a little dizzy to contemplate the possibility that everything I remember may not be real, I suppose. There was so much turmoil at that time that - that what? I took refuge in other impossible histories, in dreams, in fantasies? I don't know." page 201
Ultimately, I was more impressed with the writing than the actual plot. Very near the end, a plot twist occurred that I found just too 'low', or coincidental, for a writer of this caliber. Would I have seen this coming had I paid closer attention? I've procrastinated writing the review, in hopes of coming up with some firmer, more profound thoughts, but none came . I remain somewhat ambivalent, but mostly disappointed, with the way this was tied up...perhaps just a bit too neatly, but I fear I may be in the minority here.

In conclusion, I loved Barry's writing and will most certainly read more of his work. As for The Secret Scripture, it was an enjoyable book based on an interesting premise, with writing that shines brighter than the plot.

My rating: 3.5 / 5

Have you read The Secret Scripture? Did you see the plot twist coming, and did its neatness bother you? Are there books you've read where the writing outshines the plot?


  1. Great review of this book...I liked it better than you, but I'll admit it was the gorgeous writing that captivated me (vs. the story itself). I saw the plot twist coming...but it didn't detract from the novel for me. I think I can forgive a lot of plot issues when the writer writes as beautifully as Barry *laughs*

  2. I've been meaning to pick this up ever since one of my professors recommended it to me. Actually, urged me to read it is more like it :P She had nothing but praise for it. I'm actually glad to hear another opinion, so that I don't go into with with too high expectations. It's too bad the plot disappointed you, but judging by those passages the writing really is gorgeous!

  3. This has been on my tbr since last year, and hope to get to it soon. I admit I'm a writing-over-plot reader, so I love books like this. An example is Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. I notice that I can't stand a book that has horrible writing, no matter how interesting the plot, but I can enjoy a plotless book with good writing. :)

  4. This is a new author for I will have to check out. Some of Wodehouse's plots are repeats that he redresses in different characters and hilarious writing, so often the plot takes a back seat to his masterful way with words.

  5. Great review. I haven't read Barry yet, but have been meaning to for a while. I love the excerpts you chose, but it's good to hear an honest review on the book.

  6. I have also been meaning to read this for a while. Your review has made me curious rather than trepidatious.

  7. I haven't read The Secret Scripture but I've been meaning to pick it up. I think I'll pick it up just for the writing.

  8. The very fact that you could put the book down for days says a lot doesn't it. Having said that, I do find that my mood can really affect how receptive I am to a story. Poor authors.

  9. It's too bad the end didn't hold up for you. It sounds wonderful otherwise.

  10. I don't think you are alone in that opinion at all. Many say the Booker eluded Barry last year because of what many perceived as a trite ending. I did not mind it though as I was so caught up in the language and the stronger components of the novel. Think you may have enjoyed it more had you been able to read uninterrupted. But how many get to do that? :) Happy reading!

  11. Wendy - Thanks. The twist crossed my mind earlier in the book, but I dismissed it for being too coincidental. Have you read any of Barry's other books? I'm thinking about reading A Long Long Way.

    Nymeth - The writing was beautiful and I would recommend the book for that. Barry is quite talented!

    Claire - I can't tolerate a poorly written page turner, but have more patience with beautiful plotless writing. I guess it was really the twist that bothered me here. Robinson's writing is excellent! I read Housekeeping with a book group, but haven't read Gilead.

    BookPsmith - I really must read Wodehouse! I'm starting to sound like a broken record with this - lol!

  12. infiniteshelf - Thank you. Barry's writing is beautiful. I hope you enjoy it.

    Paperback Reader - I'll be very curious to hear what you think when you get to this one.

    Vasilly - I loved Barry's writing. If you liked the quotes, there are more like them all the way through!

    Darlene - My mood can certainly influence my feelings about what I read. I wonder if the plot thing would have bothered me if I'd been able to just concentrate on the book for a few consecutive days.

  13. Stacybuckeye - I was going to rate this book much higher before the ending. Now I'm afraid I may have been a bit too harsh.

    Frances - I'll have to read a few more reviews on this - especially relating to the Booker. I'm starting to wish I'd saved the book for a less hectic time. Oh, well...

  14. I agree that the beautiful writing is what captivated me when I read the novel. I thought the ending was a bit contrived but it was a good read.

  15. I have heard so many amazing things about this one. I did pick it up some months ago but I just don't think I was in the head space to read it then and I ended up not being drawn into it. I will have to try and give it another go I think...

  16. This was my first Barry book...I have a Long, Long Way on my TBR stack. I will definitely be reading more from this author :)

  17. I agree on both points. The writing was lovely and the ed was a bit too conveient, even if it was set up throughout the story. Overall,I think the writing won out for me in the end.

  18. Matt - Barry's writing is just beautiful, but the ending was such a disappointment. I was probably a little too harsh in my rating.

    Karen - I know what you mean. I think I would have liked this better if I'd been able to concentrate more fully on it.

    Wendy - I am thinking of reading A Long Long Way or possible Annie Dunne next.

    Jo - Yes, the ending was just too convenient. I'm surprised it bothered me so much, but it's still some of the most beautiful writing I've read in a long time.

  19. This is such a great review, definitely makes me want to read it immediately...Thank you for commenting on my post-you're the first one who commented since I started this one!

  20. Ivy,
    If you like great writing, then this is a perfect book for you. I'm honored to be the first commenter on your blog! Good luck!

  21. I am looking for a first Sebastian Barry novel. I enjoyed your review a lot and your comment on over use of coincidences seems the book blog consensus. I am going to Ireland in May and am seeking the best of contemporary Irish literature.

    1. mel u - A trip to Ireland is so exciting, especially considering all the time you have devoted to Irish short stories over the years! I won Secret Scripture from dovegreyreader several years ago. She insisted that I also read Barry's A Long Long Way, too, saying it is a far superior novel. I finally picked up a copy, but it is still unread.

      I really enjoy Colm Toibin's writing. In addition to his stories, I loved his novel, Brooklyn. The Blackwatet Lightship has been on my wish list for ages.

      Anne Enright's writing is beautiful, too. I read The Forgotten Waltz earlier this year and then bought The Gathering at a library sale this summer.

      John Banville's The Sea is another favorite.

      I'll be curious to see which books you choose.


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