4 out of 5: The Secret Scripture is a novel of haunting beauty told through the alternating perspectives of Roseanne McNulty, a centenarian patient in a mental hospital near Sligo, Ireland, and Dr. William Grene, Roseanne's psychiatrist tasked with determining Roseanne’s true history and mental state.
Barry's prose is beautifully meditative, infused with a delicate spirituality and optimism. Long, meandering sentences alternate with sentence fragments and questions, as if directed to an audience, and present tense mixes with past. The result is a free-flowing, lyrical style that defies concise description. Essentially, it's poetry masquerading as prose. In this characteristic excerpt, Roseanne describes her father:
My father’s happiness not only redeemed him, but drove him to stories, and keeps him even now alive in me, like a second more patient and more pleasing soul within my poor soul. Perhaps his happiness was curiously unfounded. But cannot a man make himself as happy as he can in the strange long reaches of a life? I think it is legitimate. After all the world is indeed beautiful and if we were any other creature than man we might be continuously happy in it.Both McNulty and Grene narrate their lives in this musical, untethered prose, and the effect is quite captivating.
The relationship between patient and doctor is mostly formal--lines aren't crossed, unmentionables aren't discussed, secrets aren't breached. Nevertheless, the two share an unlikely intimacy arising out of their contemplative personalities and common experiences. In large part, The Secret Scripture is an examination of the vagaries of memory. Both McNulty and Grene become less sure of their cherished memories over time as each provides evidence to refute the memories of the other. Ireland's troubled history plays a role in the story as well, particularly in Roseanne's reminisces. In the end, Barry's writing far outshines his plot, which he resolves all too neatly. Fortunately, with such stunning writing, plot is mostly beside the point.