The Secret of a 100-Year-Old Woman

Book Review of “The Secret Scripture” by Sebastian Barry.

18375-the-secret-scriptureRoscommon Mental Hospital is about to be torn down, and the director, Dr. Grene has to figure out what to do with his patients, including Roseanne McNulty. Should he move her to the new facility? Maybe he should find her somewhere on the outside? She doesn’t seem at all crazy, but she’s been living there since she was a teenager; how would she survive in the outside world? What’s more, she is already so old; how much time does she have to live? The only way to decide is for Dr. Grene to delve into Roseanne’s history. At the same time, Roseanne has been secretly writing the story of her life from before her institutionalization.

Told in alternating voices, we get Roseanne’s story of her past in the small Irish town of Sligo during the 1930s, together with the recently widowed Dr. Grene’s diary of both his professional and personal situation. Roseanne is writing as a form of closure; Dr. Grene is writing as a process of mourning. What’s more, both have two different issues to confront. Roseanne has not only her past but also in relation to her life at the hospital. Dr. Grene needs to mourn not only his wife, but also the dissolution of his hospital and the dispersion of all those he has cared for over the years – and most particularly for Roseanne who certainly hasn’t long to live. These two narratives take place in parallel, but they also intertwine.

What was most effective was the composition of Roseanne’s writings. Barry uses an innocence and lightness in Roseanne’s words, making the reader feel that perhaps she isn’t completely sane, although there is also the feeling that her story is the truth. In addition, rather than having Roseanne just writing her history, she also injects passages about the present. In her scripture, as she calls it, she relates to visits by Dr. Grene, to what she sees outside, and to a patient who cleans her floor. This is how Barry instills in us that Roseanne’s past and present are not separate stories.

On the other hand, Dr. Grene’s is writing to trying to make sense of his own life, while preparing to close the hospital, so he mostly concentrates on the present. However, he also includes his investigations into Roseanne’s past in order to find the best solution for her future. This is necessary, even though he has been her psychiatrist for many years, because she’s been mostly uncommunicative. This is another way that Barry builds up these characters, while also allowing us to be shown who they are and why they act as they do, without telling us outright. Using both in first person voices means both become very vivid to the readers in the physical sense as well as the mental and emotional sense.

What really sold me on this book was the writing style. Not only can you feel that we have two distinct voices here, but that the genders of both are both very clear. There’s nothing masculine in Roseanne’s sections, or falsely feminine, which could be partially expected from a male writer. With Dr. Grene, we don’t get a sterile account, as there’s a very personal look into his feelings in what he’s writing. We get excited along with him as he tells us some new tidbit discovered about Roseanne, just as we feel sad and hurt when he talks about his wife. In fact, of the two, it seems that Roseanne’s account is the more objective and disconnected emotionally. As if she were the one looking at the facts, much like a doctor would. And yet, we also don’t feel Roseanne is totally detached here. Barry uses the simplicity of his words to evoke these emotions and reactions of his characters.

I found out later that the McNulty family and the town of Sligo were already parts of Barry’s repertoire from a previous novel. Thankfully, this book is very much stand-alone, so that shouldn’t worry readers. All told, this lovely novel has vivid characters and an interesting story line, which uses a carefully structured mechanic of two first-person accounts to allow us both inside the characters as well as to observe the outside with them. What’s more, within these two stories is a connection which Barry leads up to and reveals all along the way, much like a mystery novel, making this all the more readable and fascinating. I cannot find any fault with this book with the tiny exception of perhaps it was a touch too smooth, but even that can’t make me take even half a star way from my rating, so I’ve decided it deserves a full five stars out of five and I highly recommend it.


“The Secret Scripture” by Sebastian Barry is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), from the website, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, Better World Books or from an IndieBound store near you. This is a revised version of my review on Curious Book Fans (under my username TheChocolateLady) which also appeared on {the now defunct} sites Dooyoo and Yahoo! Contributor Network.

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