The setting's Ireland, more or less contemporary. A long-term mental-hospital patient, Roseanne (about 100 years old), recounts anecdotes, while in alternating passages the long-term hospital director, Dr Grene (about 65), records discussions with her. He has to decide which patients to release into the community now that they have to move from the old place.
We are supposed to believe that a 100 year-old unschooled women who's been institutionalised for maybe 50 years can write like a Costa winner -
- "His voice entered my head as a sort of honey, that lingered there potently, buzzingly, banishing all the fears of childhood", p.13
- "Names, names, all passed away, forgotten, mere birdsong in the bushes of things", p.103
- She recalls returning to her father's grave, hoping that "some old twist of bushes and paths and buried things that might constitute a sort of ancient radio that would carry a signal of him", p.108
- "the beautiful swans taken by surprise, riding the torrent, being swept down under the bridge and reappearing the other side like unsuccessful suicides, their mysterious eyes shocked and black. their mysterious grace unassailed", p.131
She hints about future revelations, and isn't entirely reliable, writing that "I have to be very careful with these 'memories' because I realise there are a few vivid remembrances from this troubled time that I know in my heart cannot have happened" (p.242). She secretly writes, hiding her journal under a floorboard - "Maybe the truth is, I am writing it for [Dr Grene], as he is really the only person I know, in any full sense of the word" (p.132). She tells us about how her father (Presbyterian) when a sailor met her mother (Plymouth Breathren) by chance in Southampton, how he was scared by the ghost of a murderer. Later he worked in a graveyard. There was a crisis during the civil war, so he became a rat-catcher, accidentally causing the death of 123 orphans. His wife went a bit mad. He supposedly killed himself when Roseanne was 16.
Dr Grene's notes are in a more believable style. They are about her and about himself too - he says the notes are therapy for him. He spent his childhood in England, met his wife by chance, while she was on holiday in Scarborough. They are childless, sleeping apart. Early in the book she suddenly dies.
He learns from archived documents (the most detailed by Fr Gaunt, who crops up in several contexts) that her father was once a policeman and he didn't kill himself, that Roseanne was married, but that it was annulled. Their two narratives begin to move somewhat in parallel. We learn that Grene's mother had mental trouble. Whereas being seen with another man was enough to cause Roseanne's marriage to be annulled, Dr Grene years later survived a one-night indiscretion. Times and morals move on, though the political and religious contexts of the book were rather beyond me.
On p.272 we read that she gave birth to a child, described in poetic delirium. She doesn't know where it went. On p.277, in an asylum, she says she's visited by the presumed father who has their baby outside. They flee across the meadows, cross a moon-speckled river, their clothes dissolve, come off and they are "the first and last people on the earth" (p.277). Then on p.288 Roseanne's journal comes into Grene's hands. He studies the various reports, tries to determine the truth. After that, every loose end is thoroughly knotted (though I, unlike many other readers, didn't predict the ending).
- Joseph O'Connor (Guardian) (a richly allusive and haunting text that is nevertheless jagged enough to avoid the anaesthetic of high lyricism ... He makes enthrallingly beautiful prose out of the wreckage of these lives by allowing them to have the complication of actual history in all its messy elusiveness.)
- Art Winslow (New York Times) (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)
- Lisa Jewell (Telegraph) (Barry evokes the smells and the times and the terrible social constrictions of Sligo in the 1930s in language that veers towards but never reaches into the flowery. His descriptions are lyrical, full of fresh, salty metaphors and images that are both barren and brimming with life. ... The [judging] panel of nine men and women who sat around a table in the InterContinental Hotel on Tuesday afternoon were not as unequivocal as me. The Secret Scripture was found by many to be flawed; some had not enjoyed the voice of Dr Grene and had found the structural device of two separate and distinct voices frustrating when there was only one of them they really wanted to listen to. I disagreed. I liked Dr Grene and his Anglo-Irish voice, his slightly clearer, more modern view of the world and of Roseanne. Everyone agreed that the ending had been a sour note, yet most felt as I did that Barry just scraped through with it.)
- David Evens (Independent) (It became the subject of an unusual literary controversy at that year's Costa Book Awards: although it scooped the main prize, the panel of judges damned it with faint praise. Revisiting the book in this new edition, one can see why the panel equivocated. The author's tone can be rather sentimental, and he has a tin ear for dialogue. But there is, nevertheless, plenty to admire here)
- Bookbag (the language of the book is beautifully poetic. And the mystery of Roseanne's incarceration is peeled away like a piece of high quality detective fiction. Having said that, the ending is terrible – a melodramatic twist that you can see coming a mile off but can't believe Barry would ever consider. But he does, and the too-neat tying up of all the loose ends does rather spoil what would otherwise be a tremendous book.)