Set against an Ireland besieged by conflict, The Secret Scripture is the tale of one woman's life, and a vivid reminder of the stranglehold that the Catholic church had on individuals throughout much of the twentieth century.
Despite her name, Roseanne Clear is hardly transparent. A wary reticence and sincere befuddlement tend to muddy her conversations with Dr. William Grene, senior psychiatrist at Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital, whose commonplace journal renders him a co-narrator of The Secret Scripture. Their interaction, complete with its silences, works its way into their respective self-searching accounts of life, forming the loose catechism of the novel … Circumstances require that the doctor and his patient play cat and mouse. He is intent on assessing her competence and discovering her history, while she dissembles self-protectively, ‘a foul and utter lie being the best answer’ when he asks about the circumstances of her admittance … Many angelic references and much religious imagery are to be found here (slaughtered lambs, for example), but at the root of it all is the lambent quality of experience, not religion per se. Much of the real joy of reading Barry is in the bobbing freshet of his language.
Roseanne tells the story of how she, once a great beauty, came to be put in the home. Dr. Grene describes his own private anguish, the break-up of his marriage over his single infidelity, and his wife’s death, interspersed with his notes on Roseanne’s case. At first his story pales next to Roseanne’s, with all its elements of passion, murder and betrayal, and there are times in the book when it seems doubtful that these two apparently distinct narratives can ever resolve themselves into a whole novel. But not to worry ... These lives are reimagined in language of surpassing beauty.
Roseanne's voice is urgent, colloquial, strange, a song of insinuations, non-sequiturs and self-corrections. It sifts the troubled memories it purports to be organising while always keeping faith with the impossibility of the task. Shards of stories intrude; fragments of lost narratives jostle. Half-forgotten quotations and scraps of ancient folklore blow around her mind like old leaves. Is she chronicler or creator? How much is reliable? … Dr Grene is both detector and hider of truths, and he finds himself in paradoxical reversal with his baffling patient, speaking to her of his own losses and hurts. But the book is arranged and imagined with immense tact, so that it is never unbalanced by its ironies … As often in Barry's work, Irish history is a malignant omnipresence, its antediluvian hatreds and innumerable betrayals forming not so much a backdrop as a toxic sludge through which the characters must wade, as best they can.