Sebastian Barry: The Secret Scripture

I chose Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture as my first read of the Man Booker Prize 2008 longlist simply because I had it already. I had bought it a couple of months earlier, attracted by the beautiful writing of the opening pages. I started reading it a few weeks later, but became distracted somewhere along the way, and put it aside. Who knows how much longer it might have languished on my shelves if it hadn’t been brought to the surface by Portillo and co.?

This then was the third time I had read the opening couple of pages, and the surprise was that what had impressed me first time around, I now found somewhat troubling. It seemed more like ‘beautiful writing’ than beautiful writing.

That place where I was born was a cold town. Even the mountains stood away. They were not sure, no more than me, of that dark spot, those same mountains.

There was a black river that flowed through the town, and if it had no grace for mortal beings, it did for swans, and many swans resorted there, and even rode the river like some kind of plunging animals, in floods.

(I wonder if the Booker Prize judges will feel the same effect, as they’ll be reading it three times if they shortlist the book.) However this seems a bit uncharitable, as it’s undeniable that what Barry has done here is give his narrator a brilliantly distinctive voice: it sometimes comes out like the voice of a novelist rather than an elderly woman – and even, on occasion, like Yoda (“But small and narrow are all human things maybe”) – but that’s something I can live with. There are baroque images some of which don’t work (“a foaming of flames”) and some of which, surprisingly, do (“His face has a veil of dark blue veins in it, like a soldier’s face that has been too near a cannon mouth when it exploded”).  The voice is both fanciful and careful, but the balancing act sometimes loses its footing, and an otherwise sensitive and moving scene –

‘What is your name?’ he said.

‘I don’t know,’ I said, in a sudden panic. I have known him for decades. Why was he asking me this question?

‘You don’t know your own name?’

‘I know it. I forget it.’

‘Why do you sound frightened?’

‘I don’t know.’

– is tipped over the edge into sentimentality by an excess of detail (“I started to cry, not like a child, but like the old, old woman I am, slow, slight tears that no one sees, no one dries”).

The elderly woman is Roseanne McNulty, sister in law of the eponymous Eneas McNulty from Barry’s 1998 debut novel. She has lived in an old lunatic asylum in County Sligo on “the devious roads of Ireland” for, well, for longer than she or anyone else can remember. (“They called the asylum in Sligo the Leitrim Hotel.” “Did they? I never knew that. Why so? Oh, because – yes.” “Half of Leitrim was said to be in it.”) She is in the care of Dr Grene, who wants to find out the circumstances of her arrival at the asylum and to arrange for her transfer – to where? – when the asylum closes down. The narrative alternates between Dr Grene’s diary – an account of “the last days perhaps of this unimportant, lost, essential place” – and Roseanne’s story:

I write out my life on unwanted paper – surplus to requirements. I start with a clean sheet – with my many clean sheets. 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.

Barry plays with the reader: we know Roseanne is a resident of a lunatic asylum, so we might treat her account with some scepticism, particularly where it conflicts with what Dr Grene has learned. “And aren’t all our histories tangled and almost foreign to ourselves, I mean, to our imaginations?” There are surprises to be unveiled, and here there is contrast with Andrew Sean Greer’s The Story of a Marriage; Barry’s revelations are natural because they are discovered (or recovered) by the narrators as the story proceeds, and not withheld for authorial effect. However there is one major ‘twist’ which is so garish and blatant that it threatens to destabilize Barry’s carefully assembled structure. It’s not even a twist as such, since all the reader needs to do is think of the most obvious soap opera plot development, and there it is.

Making Roseanne “not only the oldest person in this place, but in Roscommon itself, perhaps even Ireland” enables Barry to cover most of the upheavals of 20th century Irish history refracted through her memory. These include not just the expected conflicts – which are a strong part of the narrative – but social repression, the limits imposed on women, and other factors which lead to Roseanne’s tragedy of waste. Images criss-cross the narratives past and present, particularly institutions where the disadvantaged are kept – the poor, the mad, the orphaned – which remind the reader of the dual meaning of asylum. There are some beautifully judged scenes showing the hierarchy of society in Ireland at the time.

Now the priest went a third time at the cigarette and found he already had quite an ash to deal with and in that silent dumbshow of smokers looked about for an ashtray, an item that did not exist in our house, even for visitors. My father astonished me by putting out his hand to the priest, admittedly a hard hand coarsened by digging, and Fr Gaunt astonished me by immediately flicking the ash into the offered hand, which perhaps flinched tinily for a moment when the heat hit it. My father, left with the ash, looked about almost foolishly, as if there might have been an ashtray put in the room after all, without his knowledge, and then, with horrible solemnity, pocketed it.

And so the reader went a third time at the book and found that it was worth its Booker longlisting after all.


  1. Thanks Kim! I appreciate that as I’m cobbling these Booker longlist reviews together on the hoof, almost as a distraction from the real business of reading the blighters! I hope you’ll share your thoughts in due course.

  2. I’m looking forward to this one John. I had it on my to-read list prior to the nomination. I’m a fan of ‘asylum’ literature. I read ‘The Vanishing of Esme Lennox’ recently which fitted the criteria but fell short of others I’ve preferred. I’ll re-visit your review when I’ve read it.

    I just finished my first Booker book – ‘The White Tiger’. So far so good!

  3. Was there a trend in Ireland to close down all the mental asylums?

    During the Reagan administration, there was one, so that’s why most of the homeless people, who need to be somewhere, are wandering the streets of the US.

  4. I’m not sure about Ireland, Isabel, but Reagan’s great pal Margaret Thatcher had a similar clearout of the mental hospitals in the 1980s under the guise of “Care in the Community.”

    Jem, good to have you blogging again. I will look forward to your thoughts on these titles.

  5. Interesting review John, I must admit you’ve pushed me into not reading this one (as valuable a service I would note as pushing someone to read something), it sounds a bit mannered and artificial from your description and the quoted language doesn’t entirely persuade me. Is that unfair? I don’t necessarily mind mannered and artificial, but otherwise it seems a novel aiming at naturalism and in that context those do seem like faults.

    I am perhaps a little fatigued by novels about priest-ridden Ireland, not because there wasn’t a time when it was true, I just feel rather like I’ve read a great many of them. Does this avoid cliche do you think? At least it doesn’t feature an abusive uncle (I hope).

  6. it sounds a bit mannered and artificial from your description and the quoted language doesn’t entirely persuade me. Is that unfair?

    No Max, I think that’s perfectly fair. Roseanne’s sections anyway are certainly mannered and artificial. I think this is not unreasonable if she is writing her life story (which she says she is) and taking care over it, but I had a mild reaction to it myself nonetheless.

    The priest isn’t all that prominent in the book though, so I think it does avoid cliche in that respect, and also in the abusive-uncle aspect. Maybe this means Barry won’t win the Booker!

  7. I have just started reading this one and it is certainly a change in tone from “The White Tiger” which I have just finished. I will revisit your review when I have finished the novel…

  8. Ah well I have just begun The White Tiger, rhr, and I agree it’s definitely different in style than The Secret Scripture – lively and skittish (maybe to a fault; I’m only a dozen pages in) where Barry is stately and perhaps a little ponderous.

  9. js – Looking forward to your opinion on The White Tiger. Skittish is an apt description of Adiga’s style.

  10. I’ve wanted to read The Secret Scripture ever since it was published, if only because I loved Barry’s A Long Long Way when I read it back in 2006, but I’ve yet to part with the money to buy it. When I heard that the main character was related to one from The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty? I wondered if I should read that first, or perhaps it doesn’t matter. (I’ve had the McNulty one sitting in my reading queue for about two years — I’ll get around to it one day.)

    He has a beautiful prose style, a reflection of his background in poetry, I think.

    You might be interested in hearing an interview with Barry on the Faber website — they’ve got a new podcast section that I’ve just discovered — and Barry talks about this book on it.

  11. Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture has today been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2008. This was one of my favourites on the longlist, so I’m pleased to see it there.

  12. Hi John
    A friend has referred me to this site and with a great interest in the Booker list I am so glad I have found you =) I have just today commenced reading The Secret Scripture and a bit hesitant to read your review just yet (spoiler phobia !!) so will revisit when finished.
    This is my second book from the shortlist having read A Fraction of the Whole several months ago before the longlist announcement and not sure it has the makings of a Booker winner……… but time will tell.
    Do you have RSS feed on this site? I have a very lean download monthly limit on my broadband plan and RSS is good for me.

  13. Hi John

    I came to your site via the Booker debate forum and am loving it. Like Jenny above I would also like an RSS feed if it is possible.

    Living in Ireland and working in a bookshop I have been circling ‘The Secret Scripture’ since it arrived on our shelves wondering whether to read it as, like Max, I have had too much Irish misery lit over the last few years. I have to say that I am not persuaded by the extracts reproduced above to pull it off the shelf, I am currently reading ‘The Gathering’ which may have something to do with it!

  14. Thanks Jenny and Carole. I’ve added a link in my sidebar (under “Email and things to click”) to the RSS Feed for my blog, or you can find it here:

    I hope that makes sense to you!

    I enjoyed The Secret Scripture and thought it was a deserving shortlistee out of the 13 longlisted books. I’m not sure I would have chosen it if I had a free hand of all the eligible books published this year, however. Carole, if you have doubts about it, I don’t think it’s for you – it’s good but not in my view a life-changingly brilliant book.

    Jenny, there are no spoilers in my review, as far as I know, and there is one major plot point at the end of the book which many readers (including me) have disliked. I’d be interested to know what you make of it.

  15. Hello John

    Well here I am back after reading The Secret Scripture and I agree with you on that questionable plot point being somewhat contrived. However I have discussed this with another reader and she wondered that without this would the ending have been as satisfying??

    However with that nitpick aside I did enjoy reading and I have The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty on my tbr so will definitely revisit this author again. Now I do have both The White Tiger and A Case of Exploding Mangoes to read and wondering which one to read next?

  16. It’s a fair point, Jenny, re the ending. It probably wouldn’t have been satisfying, but I’d say that’s Barry’s fault for essentially creating the book around that moment. It sort of contaminates the rest of the book in retrospect, for me.

    As to The White Tiger and A Case of Exploding Mangoes, well as you’ll see from my reviews here, I didn’t much like either of them. All I can say is that The White Tiger was a faster read, for what that’s worth!

  17. A terrific review, in my opinion. For the most part, I loved the book. I did think Barry should have made Dr. Grene’s “voice” more distinctive from Roseanne’s voice (as Byatt did with her characters in “Possession,” and I didn’t care for the ending, though the book is so lovely, and so beautifully written, the ending didn’t ruin the book for me. Still, I would have preferred more of an open ending.

    This and “Sea of Poppies” are my favorites. I hope one of them is the winner. Good grief. I just realized we’ll know in two days!

  18. Yes indeed Kate – the whole process has gone on for so long this year (since July!) that I think all suspense has dissipated. My favourite would still be The Clothes on their Backs, but I wouldn’t be appalled by a win for Barry or Ghosh.

  19. I also thought this was a beautiful book. It is the kind of book that constantly reminded me why I am a reader rather than a writer when it comes to literary fiction. And that is the way I like it to be. With The Secret Scripture it was the beauty of the language and the style that makes you want to go back and re-read a paragraph. And wonder at how he conjures up those images.
    Will it win? Well I agree with Kevin on the Booker site who suggests it may (for the panel) be an Irish book too far following Enright and Banville in the last 3 years.
    I have not yet read the Ghosh, but I have enjoyed the others without being overwhelmed. ‘Readability’ certainly seems to be the key word.
    So fingers crossed for Sebastian Barry. And I am lucky enough to have a ticket for the South Bank readings tomorrow. I wonder how seeing and hearing the authors in the flesh will affect my judgements.

  20. What of the rife criticism as to the mere ‘readability’ of this year’s six? The Guardian today carries a pretty interesting article about the Booker being a prime example of our slide towards anti-erudition, with some responses well worth reading. Not having read the list, I’d be interested to know what people think.

  21. Lee. I did buy the Guardian today, but could not find this article in the paper or on-line. Shame as it sounded interesting and pertinent. There was a surprising full-page article on Milan Kundera on page 3. One of my all-time favourites and I had not heard of him for a while.
    John. You would have enjoyed the show. Next year they will have to take it on tour. They started with a show of hands as to who had read one of the books. Most hands went up. Keep them up if you have read two. Most hands went down. By the time Ion Trewin had got to four, I was feeling very alone. But there was one person who had read all six – and they got a deserved round of applause.
    The readings followed and the first and last positions seemed the difficult ones to take. Linda Grant went first and did well, but she may have wished one of the natural comedians (Barry/Toltz) had gone first to warm up proceedings and set the pace. Philip Hensher went last and seemed to be incredibly nervous and fidgety throughout the other readings as he waited his turn. In the middle were the two real characters. Barry and Toltz. Toltz read a laugh out loud section of his book and made it (erm) laugh out loud funny. Barry read a mildly comedic section from his book and made it … laugh out loud funny. Both seemed made for the stage.
    Afterwards it was book signing. What a con. People turned up with bags full of books to be signed. I suspected some had not even been in to the readings. Expect a deluge of signed Booker hardbacks on ebay. My books remain gracefully unsigned.

  22. Thanks Andy, great to hear about it from the horse’s mouth (or a horse’s mouth anyway!).

    Adiga has taken it, entirely undeserved in my opinion – the worst book on the shortlist and one of the worst on the longlist – but the Booker is nothing if not unpredictable. I suspect however it will be a popular winner, as it’s an easy read.

    I believe the report Lee was referring to was this one.

  23. I fully agree with your assessment of the Booker decision, John. A truly dreadful choice. I agree the Booker is not predictable, but this is simply disgraceful. I also don’t think it will be a popular winner — yes, it is an easy read but when you finish it you wonder why you started. I can think of many books that don’t produce that unsatisfying a result. Then again, I’m not a TV presenter and it appears that is the target audience for this year’s Booker. Shameful, I say.

  24. Hi John, I just finished reading this novel. I agree with you. The first chapters are really beautifully written, I found myself underlining and underlining several descriptions, but I think the ending is ‘problematic’, to say the least! What you say about the soap opera twist is evident. Also, I think, as it was ending, there was a need, almost programatic, to fill every gap, in terms of verisimilitude, especially since the novel is about memory and its false angles. This is the first novel by Barry I read. Do you recommend any other?

  25. Nico: I thought A Long, Long Way was a very good book — very different from this book in both conception and execution, although it did deal with some (but not all) similar themes. I certainly recommend it.

    One of the reasons I found the ending in The Secret Scripture “programmatic” (good choice of words that — it seemed forced, like the ending to some 60-minute television drama) was that the credulity of both Roseanne and Dr. Grene has been stretched to the breaking point even before the ending is approached. When Barry starts to put those last pieces into place, the whole structure leans badly and, for me, finally collapsed. Bad structure overtook very good writing.

  26. My New Year’s Resolution was: if I can’t find something good to say about a book, to not say anything at all. In a desperate attempt to hang on to that wish, all I’ll say is that if it had to come down to this and the Adiga, then they plumped for the right book.

  27. I’ve had this book for over a year and I decided to read it. I just finished “The Help” This is one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read. i’m about half way through it. I can pretty safely say, I’m quite finished with Mr. Barry’s prose for the future…

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