Sebastian Barry is a novelist, a poet and a playwright from Ireland, whose some of the works have been listed for literary prizes and been twice awarded the Costa Book of the Year. Yet, the fact that no translations to Finnish exist, raised a justified question mark among the readers of our book club. Even though his list of works is notable, e.g. 9 novels – the first one Macker´s Garden in 1982, and his latest Days Without End in 2016 – nothing seems to be available for Finnish readers.
The story in Secret Scripture (2008) is told by two characters, namely by the voices of Roseanne and Dr Grene, whose lives are intertwined in Roscommon Mental Hospital. Roseanne is a patient, an old woman who has spent many decades in this protected institution in Sligo, on the Northwestern coast of Ireland. Dr Grene is a doctor, who has been living and working in Sligo for ages, and becomes now more aware of this patient of his as the asylum needs to demolished. Who is she really, and how did she end up in the mental institute?
Reader is taken back to the historical years of Ireland, as the turmoil years of independence lie in the background (the first decades of the 20th Century). The fighting between IRA (the army of the Irish Republic) and the British security forces can be heard and we understood it to be a traumatic experience for the villagers, whose lives are determined heavily based on values such as religion, social status and gender. Roseanne´s family can feel this in their backbones, as they do not belong to the Catholic church. Roseanne, who was then a small girl, is set to become independent in her early years of adolescence, and her days will become filled with work and music. The hotel Plaza with its’ entertainment – food, drinks and jazzy tunes – becomes her liberator. However, this all will change as she meets her future husband, Tom Mcnulty. Her status as a married woman in Catholic Ireland is something else, and Roseanne comes to learn this in a harsh way.
The Secret Scripture proved to be a part of a McNulty family history. We came to learn that at least Tom McNulty´s brothers get their own stories in ”the Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty” and ”The Temporary Gentleman”. Maybe this explains a bit of the after thoughts of the reading experience: there were many characters in the story who were introduced only lightly or whose stories were felt to be left incomplete. This bothered a bit. Even though the events of the stories were found rather gloomy, bleak and even sentimental to some extent, some readers did find the the stories withing the stories interesting and glimpses of humour, which managed to ”ease the pain”.
Barry´s way of writing is somewhat elegant, poetic and down-to-earth, at the same time. He has a gift taking the reader to a time journey that is not too complex nor boring. There were likes and dislikes, a varied views of the reading experience, but Barry´s gift of writing was not denied.