The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

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I knew very little about The Secret Scripture when I started reading it, apart from the fact that it was on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize and it was about an old woman in a mental hospital in Ireland, secretly writing her life story. I’d not long finished  The Gravedigger’s Daughter by Joyce Carol Oates and was surprised to find that I was reading yet another tragic tale about a gravedigger’s daughter. The opening sentences set the tone:

The world begins anew with every birth, my father used to say. He forgot to say, with every death it ends. Or he did not think he needed to. Because for a goodly part of his life he worked in a graveyard.

However, Roseanne, now about 100 years old, is the daughter of a very different gravedigger, one who was happy in his work and apparently well-liked. But his happiness didn’t last as many disasters assailed him which inevitably also affected Roseanne. As she later recalls her father

was let go from the cemetery, a living man exiled from the dead.

That was a little murder, also.

… Working in the graveyard, under the patronage as it were of Fr Gaunt, was in some manner to him his life perfected, made good. In some manner, made as a prayer back to his own father. It was the way he had learned to live, in Ireland, the accidental place he loved.

And to lose the job was to lose in some extraordinary fashion himself.

At the beginning of the book the hospital is due to close and at the same time as she is writing her own account of her life, Dr Grene is assessing whether she could cope with living on her own. He delves into her past trying to find the reason she was admitted and as the “facts” of her life emerge there are obvious discrepancies between her own account and the hospital records. It’s a story of Roseanne’s struggle to survive set against the background of religious conflict and political unrest in Ireland.

I was thoroughly gripped and moved by this novel; by the plot, the characters and the writing. Dr Grene, whose wife dies during the course of the book, is haunted by the failure of his marriage and overcome with grief:

I had woken in the night with an appalling sense of shame and disquiet. If I could itemise the attributes of my grief, and print them in a journal, I might do the world a general service. I suspect it is hard to remember grief, and it is certainly invisible. But is is a wailing of the soul nonetheless and I must never underestimate its acidic force in others.

One aspect of this novel particularly appealed to me – the nature of memory and its function in our lives. Roseanne looking back over her life begins to wonder just what was real and what was fantasy, comparing memory to a box or lumber room where

the contents have become jumbled about, maybe not only from neglect but also from too much haphazard searching in them, and things to boot thrown in that don’t belong there.

As she sees it,

… time passing is just a trick, a convenience. Everything is always there, still unfolding, still happening. The past, present, and the future, in the noggin eternally, like brushes, combs and ribbons in a handbag.

I’ve read some criticism that the ending is disappointing and contrived and although I could see how events were going to unfold I have no complaints. It was satisfying and it worked for me.

Teaser Tuesdays

The rules are:

  • Grab your current read.
  • Let the book fall open to a random page.
  • Share with us two (2) ‘œteaser’ sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12.
  • You also need to share the title of the book that you’™re getting your ‘œteaser‘ from ‘¦ that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’™ve given!
  • Please avoid spoilers!
  • Today’s teaser comes from Dear Dodie: the Life of Dodie Smith by Valerie Grove.

    ‘Just listen to the glorious silence,’ said Alec. ‘We are always happiest,’ wrote Dodie, to be on our own.’ (page 175)

    It is 1947 and Dodie and her husband Alec are living in America. She has nearly finished writing I Capture the Castle and Dodie’s friend Phyllis who had been staying, distracting Dodie from her writing, has just left.

    For more teasers see here.

    Tuesday Thingers

    This week’s question: Legacy libraries. With which legacy libraries do you share books? Tell us a little about a couple of them and what you share.

    I had no idea that this group I See Dead People’s Books existed! It is mind-boggling. People have entered the personal libraries of a number of famous people into LibraryThing and collectively they are called Legacy Libraries.

    I share books with quite a few of them. Ernest Hemingway and I share 71 books, but he did own 7,411 books. One of those 71 books is Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland, which we both share with Marilyn Monroe!

     I share 4 books with Marilyn Monroe, out of the 261 books of hers that were sold at auction after she died. The four books we have in common are:

    • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking glass and The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll
    • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
    • Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
    • Ulysses by James Joyce

    James Joyce and I share three books:

    • The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
    • The Iliad of Homer by Homer
    • The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf


    I’m thrilled that Leonardo Da Vinci and I share Dante’s Divine Comedy – I did start reading it, I must finish it one day! Oh, and Ernest Hemingway shares it too.

    Sunday Salon – My Family Bible

    I’ve not done much today – read a little, done some family history, made lunch and taken some photos. It seems an appropriate day to write about my family Bible. Sunday reading in Victorian times would mainly be restricted to the Bible, I suppose and here is what my family would have been reading over 100 years ago.

    My family Bible has seen better days! Hopefully this is a “before” photo as I’ve found a local bookbinder and restorer, who I hope is going to work wonders.

    This Bible belonged to my great grandfather, Isaac. Inside he recorded that he was born on 7 August 1848 and married Elizabeth on 10 November 1877. (Coincidentally my birthday is 7 August and wedding anniversary is 8 November!) They had five children, the two eldest being Sarah and George (my grandfather). Then there was John who died aged 28 in 1911 (I’d love to find out what happened to him, maybe his death certificate will tell me) and Emily who died aged 21months and Annie aged 11 months. 


    When I was five my grandparents came to live with us and brought the Bible with them. I loved looking at it and at photos of Isaac and Elizabeth, being a little scared as they looked so stern. The only photos that I have now are of Elizabeth with her grandchildren. The little girl in the photo below is my mother.

    Looking inside the Bible this morning a little newspaper cutting fell out. It was about my parents’ wedding and I’d never seen it before. They were married in 1938 at Shotton in Wales and I’d seen their wedding photo, which is of course black and white. It had never occurred to me to ask my mum what colour her dress was and I’d just assumed it was white. However it was blue – the symbol of purity. The newspaper cutting revealed that her dress was “pale blue satin, hat to tone” and she carried a bouquet of pink carnations. The two bridesmaids were “attired in blue Victorian dresses, with halos to match and carried Victorian posies.”  The bride was presented with lucky horseshoes by two of her friends as she left the church and following a reception at the bride’s home the couple left for their honeymoon at Llandudno.

    As a child I loved to see the lucky horseshoes and I still have them, looking bright and shiny after 70 years!

    Lock 14 – Georges Simenon

    I used to enjoy the TV series Maigret with Rupert Davies in the title role and when I came across this book I thought it was time to renew my acquaintance. Lock 14 was originally published in 1931 as Le Charretier de la ‘Providence’ and translated as Maigret Meets a Milord in 1963. It’s a short book of 124 pages which didn’t take me very long to read.

    The main action is in the world of canals and barges with Maigret cycling up and down the canal in his efforts to discover who had murdered a woman found in a stable at Dizy alongside the canal from Epernay to Vitry-le-Francois. I was a little puzzled at first about what was going on but I wasn’t the only one as Maigret himself had to familiarise himself in a world that was very different from the one he knew.  At first I found the names of the places, boats and characters confusing but really the story is quite simple, once I’d worked out who was who, which boat they were on and that horse-drawn barges had stables on board.

    The murdered woman we soon discover was Mary, the wife of Sir Walter Lampson, a retired colonel of the Indian Army, who is sailing on his yacht The Southern Cross, with the seaman Vladimir, Willy Marco his friend and Gloria (Madame Negretti) the widow of a Chilean politician. When Willy is also found strangled in the canal the mystery thickens. Also travelling along the canal is the horse-drawn barge the Providence – the skipper, his wife ‘a fat Brussels woman with peroxided hair and a shrill voice’ and the carter, Jean who looks after the horses.  Just who was Mary and why was she killed?

    In the end I did enjoy this mystery, with its description of the gloomy canal world, as the rain pours down incessantly and Maigret gets increasingly grumpy, exasperated and tired.

    Booking Through Thursday – Favourite Couples

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    Monica suggested this one:

    Got this idea from Literary Feline during her recent contest:

    ‘œName a favorite literary couple and tell me why they are a favorite. If you cannot choose just one, that is okay too. Name as many as you like’“sometimes narrowing down a list can be extremely difficult and painful. Or maybe that’™s just me.’

    I nearly didn’t do this post as my mind went completely blank when I read the question, and apart from  Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy, I couldn’t think of any couples I particuarly liked. As it’s been years since I read Pride and Prejudice I thought that was rather sad.

    Then I thought of Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester, but I haven’t actually read the book! They came to mind because as a child I saw a TV dramatisation of Jane Eyre. I was terrified by the mad woman in the attic and admired the way Jane coped with it all and ended up with her hero.

    Another couple from my reading at school is Lucie Manette and Sydney Carton in Tale of Two Cities – because he sacrificed himself for love of her. I must re-read this book sometime.

    Going even further back in my reading as a child great favourites are Jo and Laurie in Little Women. they never actually made it as a couple and stayed as friends. I still think she should have married him instead of Professor Bhaer.

    A more recent couple are Cecilia and Robbie in Atonement – denied of happiness by a terrible mistake and by war.

    A real life literary couple is Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Their love story is so romantic as told in both Margaret Forster’s biography of Elizabeth Barret Browning: a biography and in her novel  Lady’s Maid.  Although not a couple in the usual sense I’m also very fond of Elizabeth and Flush (her dog) – dogs are such faithful friends. Their story is told in Virginia Woolf’s novel Flush: a biography.