Roseanne Clear McNulty is 100 years old and living in a mental institution in Ireland that is about to be torn down. William Grene, the hospital’s psychiatrist, must assess her and all the other patients, many of whom have lived there for many years, to find out which of them truly need to be committed (and sent to the newer, smaller building) and who can be “set free.”
Dr. Grene visits with the old woman repeatedly but doesn’t find out a lot of information about her history and why she ended up in Roscommon hospital in the first place. Even as she doesn’t share much with him in person, Roseanne begins to write her own personal history, hiding it under a loose floorboard in her room.
The Secret Scripture slowly shares the heartbreaking story of Roseanne, even as it metes out details about Dr. Grene’s life, past and present, through his point of view. Readers piece together one chapter at a time what brought both characters to their current states. As he visits with Roseanne, Dr. Grene also tries to find any kind of written documents that can provide him with the “facts of the case.” He finds one early on, a deposition given by a Catholic priest who was close to Roseanne’s family, that diverges a great deal from what Roseanne does reveal to Dr. Grene, and he wonders what is truth/ fact or history, and what is impaired memory or some kind of real mental disorder.
Sebastian Barry’s novel explores the tumultuous history of Ireland in the mid-20th century, as battles raged between rebels and government, between Protestants and Catholics. It shows just how much those events affected individuals and families, the tragedy and destruction they wrought. Roseanne was just one woman caught in the crossfire, an example of the power held by the Catholic priests in their communities and the country at large. Barry’s prose is beautiful and evocative of the time and place, his story one of sadness tinged with hope.
Rated: Moderate, for five occurrences of strong language, four uses of moderate language (in reference to excrement) and a handful of uses of mild language. Some brief sexual references.