The Secret Scripture

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 April, 2009, 12:00am

The Secret Scripture
by Sebastian Barry
Faber and Faber HK$280

Missing out on the Man Booker Prize (apparently the judges didn't like the ending) hasn't hurt The Secret Scripture. Riding high on many paperback charts, Sebastian Barry's latest has already earned a reputation as the Booker winner that got away. Set in Ireland in the soon-to-be-demolished Roscommon mental hospital, it is a narrative two-hander mainly told by Roseanne McNulty, an elderly resident. She keeps to herself until, terrified by the thought of having to leave her 'home', she begins to write a memoir, which she stows under the floorboards of her bedroom. The other narrator is Dr Grene, the hospital's senior psychiatrist. He also writes 'secret scriptures' about the final days of the facility and the fates of its patients. Slowly, elegantly and using his skills as a playwright, Barry brings the two narrators together. Both share pasts defined by cruelty, indifference, obscurity and moments of joy. This is history made personal and unstable, a story about lives dragged through time and, as with much of Barry's work, it is about Ireland itself. I leave the end to your discretion but The Secret Scripture is a worthy almost victor.