My sister-in-law gave me this book for Christmas with a disclaimer. She had been bargain book hunting and found boxes of great books for our girls, but shopping for me had been tricky. “This was the only one I could find that I thought might be one you would like?”
Turns out, as with all of her gifts, it was a good pick.
The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry is set in Ireland. The mental institution, Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital, is set to be demolished and the residents moved to a newer facility. Dr. Grene has been given orders to evaluate the patients and determine if any are capable of being reintroduced to society. One woman in particular has captured his imagination and interest: Roseanne McNulty. She is nearly one hundred and her history is unknown.
As Roseanne approaches one hundred she also pursues the story of her life, spurred by a mother’s love for a child she does not know. She has gaps that she does not trust, but she pens through in pursuit of her story. Readers are never fully convinced of her unreliability, but nor are we certain of her memory.
Dr. Grene makes little progress in understanding Roseanne’s history. He finds scraps and papers – at times refuting the tidbits Roseanne has provided – and ultimately more questions. But his interest in her and connection with her only heightens. The unraveling of his own life provides a connecting point that softens their relationship past doctor-patient sterility and into humanness.
Typically I don’t like books with the type of wrap-up ending this one provided, but in this case, it was elegant and beautiful. It redeemed, it expanded the emotional spectrum of engagement with the characters, and it was a powerful fit.
While there are themes of memory and truth and loss and faith that are present, I will encourage you to explore them in this work for yourself. The theme that stood out to me the most, even more so now that I’m typing this, is that of beauty.
Roseanne, even at one hundred, is noticed for being uncommonly beautiful. Throughout her life she is told by various men how striking she is. And though the reader knows this, it is her inner beauty that stands out. Her writing is laced with humor and passion and grace and dignity and authenticity. The physical beauty that we assume she has is secondary to the engaging and beautiful person we meet from within her head. The beauty that you can Instagram and show the world for a second will not outlive the kind of beauty that is nurtured within and revealed only through contact with other people. It is perhaps why we photograph roses so often, and it is undoubtedly one reason for the presence of roses in names, places, and stories throughout The Secret Scripture. Roseanne is grown in adversity and blooms despite neglect.