Rosecommon Mental Hospital is the present day setting for Sebastian Barry’s novel The Secret Scripture. Alternating between two narrators – a 100+ year old woman / patient and her 65 year old physician – Barry goes back in Irish history to the days of Catholics vs. Protestants to weave his tale.
Roseanne has been institutionalized as long as anyone can remember, and with Rosecommon falling in on itself and just weeks from demolition, Dr. Grene must decide where to place Roseanne. All too familiar with the history of mental institutions and the way they’ve been used to lock undesirables away, regardless of true mental state, Dr. Grene sets out to discover why Roseanne is in Rosecommon.
At the same time, he is dealing with his own past and present – an apparent inability to connect with people, stemming from his own childhood as an adopted orphan, a distant marriage, and then the death of his wife that leaves him with huge grief and regret.
Orphans and institutions (orphanages, churches, asylums) are reoccurring elements through out the 80 years that the novel spans. In addition, themes of faithfulness, memory and truth play imperative roles as the past is revealed or uncovered. Roseanne tells of her relationship with her Protestant father – Joe Clear – a cemetery worker turned rat catcher; the local priest – Father Gaunt – whose peripheral presence throughout her life has great impact on her future; her husband – Tom McNulty – whose mother has their short marriage annulled; and Eneas McNulty – Tom’s vagabond brother with whom a one-night-stand proves enormously tragic.
Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? For all the beauty in the concept, even in the characters, I was disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, The Secret Scripture is good, it just isn’t great. And, I felt this story had real potential, so I just felt let down reading it.
In addition, Barry pulls a fast one in the last 18 page of the novel, a twist that could only have been guessed in the last 50 pages and even then, it is a stretch to make it work. I don’t like writers who don’t respect their readers, and I felt a little betrayed by this one. It isn’t even that I didn’t like the ending – I thought it was a good way to bring the novel full circle and satisfy the mystery. I just didn’t like the way Barry did it.
So would I recommend The Secret Scripture? – to avid readers, absolutely – just don’t go in with the expectations I did and perhaps you’ll be pleasantly surprised.