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Sebastian Barry, The Secret Scripture

This year's Irish March got off to a late start, had a late finish and consisted of just one book - Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture. I somewhat liked the book but also had some serious concerns. The prose was beautiful and the Irish subject matter (something I'm always a sucker for) inevitably drew me in. Oh, but those concerns:

+ Much of the book is narrated by 100-year-old Roseanne Clear via the secret journal she is writing about her early life, prior to her committal to a mental institution. (She does not seem mentally ill, and her committal was not justified, but instead the result of the vindictiveness of her in-laws and the parish priest.) But though Roseanne was minimally educated, gives no indication of previously doing any writing during her life, and is subject to the unreliable memory and erratic thought processes of a 100-year-old, her writing is simply gorgeous and reads like the work of a young, sharp-minded and educated writer - like, say, the author. In short, her voice seems false.

+ The side story of Dr. Grene is a distraction. His role in investigating the circumstances of Roseanne's long-ago committal is important (for one, it provides a counterpoint to her unreliable memory), but his personal life doesn't have much relevance to the story until the very end.

+ Agggh, that ending! Too tidy, convenient, and cliched. When I read the big revelation (which, I'm embarrassed to say, I failed to see pages in advance) I actually said "No no no no no" in a muted voice, which I might have yelled had I not been on a crowded train at the time. I might have also flung the book against the wall. As the author thoughtfully mused on truth versus fact, wondering if false imaginings are better than hard reality, I hoped he would leave much of the mystery of Roseanne's life unresolved - I often find questions more interesting than answers. But instead the author answers almost everything about her (including that huge and implausible revelation), not only through Grene's reading of her journal but also a decades-old bureaucratic file and two highly convenient explanatory letters. Almost every loose end is neatly tied up, leaving little to the imagination. The author should have trusted his readers much more than he did.

Overall, the book was a disappointment. It should have been much better than it was. I'm not sure I'll be reading any more of Barry's work.

April 7, 2011 in Books | Permalink

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