Amy’s Marginalia: The Secret Scripture

I seem to be stuck on a theme of madness and asylums because there have been a few movies and books that I’ve been encountering recently with these topics.  I hope it isn’t indicative of my state of mind!  Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture was the most noteworthy foray into the theme, and even if you find novels about mental illness depressing, there was a lot of mystery and hope in this one.

The title is a bit misleading (as many titles often are).  This one makes you think you’re reading about holy writ, and the cover pictures and angel, giving more credence to that assumption.  Not so.  The story begins in the present day, with a centenarian woman living in a mental asylum in Ireland.  She’s recounting her life story, her own written secret scripture, which she hides in the floorboards of her room.  At the same time, her psychiatrist seeks the story from documented sources, which our modern minds are given to trust, more than that of the “madwoman.”  The stories don’t always match, and we begin to wonder who is mad and who is not.

The main character, Roseanne McNulty, focuses the turning point of her life on the Irish Civil war of 1922.  Her family and loved ones were all tangled up in the events leading up to and after the war.

Religion does play a role in the novel, as one of the key players is a Catholic priest, who was very much involved in the protestant Roseanne’s life, prior to her institutionalization.  The tension between the protestant Roseanne (and her family) and the Catholics around her is palpable throughout Roseanne’s history in Ireland, and one gets a feel for some of the centuries old animosity between these two groups.

One of my book groups read this, and it brought up an interesting discussion on our ability to discern truth through our tainted perspective.  The novel raises questions about the process of getting to the truth when you have witnesses with differing motives and flawed perceptions.

The author plays with some startling images, many of which are supposed to be symbolic, I can only assume, but the symbolism doesn’t resonate very deeply.  He attempts to invest characters’ actions with a great deal of significance, where sometimes, it seems a bit heavy handed and forced.  However, the interplay of time and alternate stories is extremely creative and original.

I’d be interested in hearing if anyone has read this or another book by Barry.  Also, perhaps you have a suggestion for another book that uses this same, intriguing method of telling conflicting stories.


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