The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

The Secret ScriptureThe Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you look at the number of stars I gave The Secret Scripture, and then at the categories I described it with (beautiful writing, big issues, sense of place, unreliable narrator) you may notice a confusing discrepancy.
This discrepancy captures a little of what I feel after reading this novel by Sebastian Barry, one which received glowing reviews by several readers whom I respect.
What is true is that author Sebastian Barry is an immensely talented artist of the written word…his use of language approaches poetry or music, and as I listened to the audio version of this book, I truly enjoyed the sound experience.
What is also true is that Sebastian Barry deals with a lot of big, difficult, themes. His main character, Roseanne, is a woman marginalized and treated as an animal (in one devastating scene, as she is on the verge of giving birth, she goes to ask for help from her ex-husband’s relatives, and is shooed out of their front yard “like a cat,” and told that there is no one to help her.
From the beginning, Roseanne has two strikes against her. She is Presbyterian, in a heavily Catholic Ireland troubled by a recent civil war. She is also shockingly beautiful, in a time in which a woman whose mere presence reminds men of their sexuality is a threat.
This story, related in part by Roseanne, and in part through the notes of Dr. Grene, the widower-psychiatrist at the institution where the 100-year-old patient resides, deals with just about all the biggest issues I can imagine.
The Secret Scripture is written without any kind of sugarcoating, and with a kind of unflinching nakedness, which perhaps can come only from the pen of a woman deemed insane and of a man grieving the recent death of his wife.
The Secret Scripture manages to be more powerful because of what it does not say. As I think about this novel, I find myself searching for superlatives, and think that rather than use them, it is probably truer to say that author Sebastian Barry has used his prodigious talent for language to direct us towards something immense and ineffable, beyond the written word.
So why, ultimately, did I give The Secret Scripture only three stars? I enjoyed it less than I thought I would, in part because I began reading it with the incorrect expectation that it would be a literary suspense novel along the lines of the work of Jenn Ashworth or Louise Welsh (two of my very favorite writers). Instead, The Secret Scripture is more what I would describe as a novel that deals with the essence of being Irish, in a specific time and place, and to a specific person, but also, deals with many issues that apply to all human beings. The Secret Scripture is sad, bleak, and beautiful.

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