Sebastian Barry's 'The Secret Scripture' interweaves the personal testament of 100-year-old Rosanne McNulty, a longtime asylum inmate, and that of her psychiatrist Dr Grene.
At times bleakly funny, devastatingly sad and held together with a strange hope, the novel's strength is not tempered by an ending that has stirred much contention amongst readers and the judges of the 2008 Costa Book Awards, although it was awarded the top prize.
The book's saving grace is the voice of its main narrator Rosanne. Her unique and enchanting voice comes to life within the novel's pages, as we are led through the often troubled years of her life.
Her language is at times remarkably strange, her descriptions and turn-of-phrases inherently Irish and also strikingly unique. Often I was inspired to read sentences twice and three times over to take in the beautiful prose.
It manages to also avoid being too ponderous or heavy, despite the shocking revelations about her past, due to Rosanne's unbreakable will to live.
The story picks up as the psychiatric institution in which Rosanne has spent the most of her many years is due to be demolished and it's inhabitants displaced to other hospitals, or released. In the weeks running up to this, Dr Grene visits Rosanne on many occasions to try and determine which path she should go on.
Rosanne herself has taken to writing her final testament, and put to rest fabrications which have plagued her life. Alongside this are Dr Grene's diary inserts, which he begins writing to formalise his views on his patient.
His diary jottings about Rosanne reveal more of the man himself than the writing exercise intended, and we get a glimpse into his home life and marriage. His erudite narrative is not nearly as transfixing as Rosanne's though, whose words are full of unusual descriptions and have an almost mystical flow.
The reader gets an insight into Rosanne's hidden past, her upbringing in Sligo, marriage to a local musician Tom McNulty and eventual incarceration in the psychiatric hospital.
This is a powerful piece of work whose central character is so beautifully realised that she will live long in our memories.