[Review] The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

Title: The Secret Scripture: A Novel
Author: Sebastian Barry
Page: 312 pages
Genre: Literary Fiction
Subject: Sligo (Ireland), Social Conditions (1922 - 1973), Physician and Patient
First Published: 2008

Nearing her hundredth birthday, and still living in the mental hospital where she was committed as a young woman, Roseanne looks back on the tragedies and passions of her life through her secret journals. Growing up in rural Ireland in the 1930s, her adolescence is marked by civil war and a turbulent family life. When she marries Tom McNulty, she believes she has found love and security – only for a terrible misunderstanding, born of prejudice and deception, to threaten her fragile happiness.

- Synopsis from book cover
I am going to jump the gun and say it right here and now that I just fell in love with this book! This is the sort of book that takes me in right from the very first paragraph, made me lose all sense of time and my sense of surrounding. I was reading it while the television is on, even while walking the few steps to the kitchen to grab a glass of water, I was immersed with the story of Roseanne Clear. You may think that I’m joking – or maybe crazy – but I unconsciously thought about the book while sleeping!

Enough about that, on with the review ….

Roseanne Clear is probably the oldest and longest patient at the Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital, where she was admitted as a young woman. Approaching her hundredth birthday, probably out of certain need and urgency that she might be nearing her death, she sets about to write the secret history of her life:

“For dearly I would love now to leave an account, some kind of brittle and honest-minded history of myself, and if God gives me the strength, I will tell this story, and imprison it under the floor-board, and then with joy enough I will go to my own rest under the Roscommon sod.”  (page 5)

Now tell me, who wouldn’t be intrigued by that?

Roseanne tells us about her fond childhood memories in a small town of Sligo: about her father – “the cleanest man in all the Christian world, all Sligo anyhow” – his love for operetta, his bedtime stories, little anecdotes about the time when he was a young sailor – “a man who can make himself merry in the face of those coming disasters that assailed him.” As we read along we become privy to the story of her crumbling life, through the civil war that eventually brought her to the mental hospital.

And then there’s Dr. Grene, a psychiatrist at the Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital who couldn’t help but being intrigued by this old woman. A man with a past of his own, Dr. Grene is grieving the death of his wife, a woman with whom he had had a difficult marriage with due to her depression. His curiosity with Roseanne – which at first out of his duty as a psychiatrist – but as he learns about her story from old hospital records and some investigative work on his part, his need to know the truth becomes part of his grieving process, as if finally knowing the truth justifies his sanity.

Writing a review for this book is difficult lest I accidentally give the story away and I know that whatever I say here wouldn’t as close to giving it justice it truly deserved. Roseanne Clear is probably the best narrator I have “met” in my entire reading experience and I applaud the author Sebastian Barry for this beautiful piece of literature.

The Secret Scripture was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2008. And I will definitely look out for the rest of his works.


You always read the most interesting books, and then make me want to read them!

Don't feel too intimidated by the size of Anna Karenina. I found it surprisingly easy to read and didn't resent spending so much time on one book.