Posted by: Corri van de Stege | May 3, 2009

The Sunday Salon – Sebastian Barry and some thoughts on conspiracy theories


Over the last few days I have read Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture, after having listened to him talking about it on a podcast, and feeling really intrigued.  Of course, it was there on my tbr pile anyway.

sebastian-barry-the-secret-scriptureThe story of Roseanne McNulty is set in Ireland, in the 20’s and 30s, but also in the here and now.  Looking back, a hundred years old, Roseanne narrates her story, she’s in an institution, and hides her writing under the floor boards of her room, hides them from Dr. Grene, who comes and visits her, almost on a daily basis.  Dr. Grene asks questions, he wants to find out why Roseanne was institutionalised in the first place, and whether there are reasons to ‘let her go’ now that the institution will be demolished and only much smaller and more confined ‘accommodation’ will become available.

Dr Grene himself is also getting older; he’s 65 now and is trying to cope with the death of his wife Bet, and their estrangement over the years prior to her death, with his sense of guilt.  Dr Grene writes down his thoughts about Roseanne and what he is able to find out about her, tries to discover her secrets, but he is constantly sidetracked by his own story and so we get to know Dr Grene also, to a certain extent.

About growing old he writes:

There has never been a person in an old people’s house that hasn’t looked around dubiously at the other inhabitants.  They are the old ones, they are the club that no one wants to join.  But we are never old to ourselves. That is because at close of day the ship we sail in is the soul, not the body.

The Secret Scripture is a wonderful book, full of insights, and the story is riveting; it’s incredibly moving without ever a hint of sentimentality and you wonder how these things could happen to people, how one catholic priest could wield such an influence and because of that could so thoroughly ruin other people’s lives.  We know that these things happened and Sebastian Barry makes it only too real.  This is great writing, and his book is high up on my list of best books this year, as much for the style and skill with words as for the story it tells so well.

While Roseanne McNulty slowly uncovers her story, looking back on the very tragic course of events that lead to her incarceration in ‘the madhouse’,  Dr Grene carries out his own investigation until he uncovers the shocking secret in Nazareth House in Blexhill in England.

(Gavin has just informed me of his review, here)

 The Sunday Times Culture section today however has an interesting article by Bryan Appleyard on Ishiguro and his latest book, Nocturnes, which will be published shortly.  I like these essays by BA – well worth a read if you have the time.  I will definitely get hold of this book – I like Ishiguro’s writing.

However, my eye got caught by a non-fiction title ‘Voodoo histories: the role of the conspiracy theory in shaping aaronovitch-voodoo-historiesmodern history’ by David Aaronovitch and which is reviewed by Christopher Hart.   Hart writes:

Voodo Histories is, however, much more than a prolonged sneer at human folly, ignoble fun though that always is.  It is also a sensitive inquiry into why conspiracy theories appeal, and Aaronovitch’s theories are consistently reasonable, persuasive and humane.

I think conspiracy theories are fascinating: why do people offer sometimes really complicated theories on and accusations about for example, Diana’s death and Kennedy’s assassination? Lots of us greatly enjoyed the Da Vinci Code, which ultimately is no more than a conspiracy theory and as Hart notes, a pretty juvenile one at that.  I might just try and get hold of a copy of this book – it’s finding the time to read it!

Meanwhile, I’ve started Siri Hustvedt’s The Sorrows of an American (which is now out in paperback) and I will let you know how I get on with this.  First pages are very promising!


  1. “The Secret Scripture” sounds wonderful. I’m adding it to my wish list!

  2. The Secret Scripture was like poetry disguised as prose for me. The language was gorgeous and even the questionable ending could not mar the enjoyable reading experience here.

    Today I am reading the new Laurie King book The Language of Bees, and hosting a book giveaway for The Crimes of Paris. Happy reading!

  3. I’m bookmarking your post: 1) The Secret Scripture sounds like something I’d love; 2) Voodoo Histories sounds like something my husband would love; and 3) thank you for the reminder about Siri Hustvedt. I’ve been wanting to read more of her ever since I read What I Loved last year.

  4. The Secret Scripture is in my TBR pile as well. I’ve put off reading it because of its apparent similarity to The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, but must try it soon.

    My interest in/tolerance of conspiracy theories is low, but I will read the reviw and see if that changes my mind!

  5. The Secret Scripture is a wonderful book. I wrote a short review of it and am linking your review to mine here:

    Voodoo Histories looks like fun!

  6. […] 51stories Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Book review   […]

  7. Kate S: yes, it is a marvellous book and I’m sure you’ll love it.
    Frances: poetry disguised as prose – yes, what a lovely way of putting it. I was interested to hear Sebastian Barry on the podcast when he said that Dr Grene took over as his own character, how he had not at first intended to pay much notice to Dr Grene as he wanted the book to be about Roseanne. Isn’t that a wonderful way of describing the writing process?
    Julie: It’s nice to hit all the right buttons! I also read ‘What I loved’ and do like Hustvedt’s style. I’ll return the visit!
    Sarah – it is and it isn’t, the same story I mean. The writing styles are so different, and I loved both books. The books don’t remind of each other at all, even if the stories have some similarity (old woman in institution).
    Gavin: I’ve reciprocated the link, updated my blog with a link to your review also. Thanks for pointing this out.

  8. I just began The Secret Scripture this morning, and finds Roseanne’s narrative more intriguing—I want to know more of her story, and what happened that she was confined in the institution if she was within her mental faculty. Dr. Grene is digressing a lot and he’s not all that interesting, yet! I feel perusing this book slowly in order to not miss all the subtle insights.

  9. The Secret Scripture is one of those books I’ve read a lot about lately, but I actually had no idea what it was about. Thanks to your post I think I have to have it! Gah! My checkbook is groaning as I type this. 😉

  10. People find conspiracy theories fascinating for the same reason people find religion fascinating… it allows them to believe that there is a higher purpose into events that are in actuality random confluences of events. A man named Alex Jones has made a living at this, I wrote an article about conspiracy theories and Alex Jones a while back, check it out

  11. Hi seachanges, have just reviewed this as well. Loved it, and thanks for the recommendation.

  12. Pete: I thought it might be your kind of book. Will pop over to read your review!

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