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Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Book Review: The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

This book was once I bought ages ago as part of a buy-one-get-one-free offer. It was Costa Book of the Year 2008 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker. All in all, it seemed to have a good pedigree.

To start with, the prose is exceptionally well-written: it flows, it captures the two narrators, Roseanne and Dr Grene in their distinctive voices, and the differentiation between the two is subtle but sharp. It reads like an early twentieth-century novel - which is fortunate as half of the book is set back there.

It follows the story of Roseanne Clear as she records her memories onto paper in the confines of the asylum that has been her home for many years. Meanwhile, Dr Grene frets about the closure of the hospital and moving patients that were detained for social rather than psychological reasons back into the community. He is also struggling with his own personal problems. The narrative flits between Roseanne's testimony of herself and Dr Grene's commonplace book, intertwining themes and plot as it goes. Structurally, it's an excellent novel.

Furthermore, there are some truly memorable scenes in there. One horrific scene recounts Roseanne's troublesome childbirth, but in a subtle manner which has none of the sensationalism one might expect from a lesser writer. Another scene, where Dr Grene hears a voice where there couldn't possibly be one, is equally chilling and touching. The novel is full of little moments like this which conspire to make a coherent whole.

So what was my problem?

Well, it rests with the 'secret' at the heart of the novel. I won't ruin it but I honestly guessed what it was all about fairly early on. In itself that isn't necessarily a bad thing. The book is well-written enough for a reader to simply enjoy the elegant prose. Had I begun to read it with that in mind I wouldn't have felt as disappointed as I had when I finally put the book down.

Worth a read, definitely, but don't expect too much towards the end.

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