Beautiful writing, flawed plot

This is my review of The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry.

I would have rejected this book for its "grim" theme of an old woman dying in a mental asylum, but was obliged to read it as a "book group" choice. From the first page, I began to revise my opinion, struck by the poetic quality of the writing, with unusual and memorable imagery. The sad situation of the central character Roseanne was eased by her own wit and self awareness. The Catholic priest, Father Gaunt, was a wonderfully malign presence through the book.

The story deteriorated for me at the point when Roseanne recalled her life as a young married "normal" woman. The relationships with her husband and his family were underdeveloped and the events leading up to her incarceration were often unclear, even implausible. Without revealing too much, the manner in which she became pregnant and the details of the birth of her child were unconvincing or unrealistic.

The idea that we may have different perceptions and recollections of past events is interesting, but I was irritated that Grene felt the need to spell this out so specifically, rather than leave it to the reader to work this out.

I also agree with reviewers who have found the final denouement far too contrived – almost ludicrous in the piling on of coincidences.

Also, the wise and self aware "voices" used by both Grene and Roseanne were often too similar – and it was unlikely that an old woman asylum-bound for so long would be so lucid.

This tale is much less bleak than other recent Irish novels e.g. The Gathering or The Sea, but although I admire the quality of the writing I would not recommend it strongly. At first I thought it was an interesting take on the timeworn theme of the effects of Catholic bigotry but was left thinking that it had added little to my understanding of this.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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