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Book Review: The Whipping Club

Posted by gck Wednesday, March 28, 2012

whippingclubThe Whipping Club by Deborah Henry 

Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: *** (out of 5)
Recommended for: People who enjoy darker historical fiction, people who want to explore a lesser known side of Ireland
Received ARC e-galley through NetGalley.

Book 4 of 52 in the “Around the World in 52 Books” Challenge

Back-cover summary:
Marian McKeever and Ben Ellis are not typical young lovers in 1957 Dublin, Ireland; she’s Catholic and teaches at Zion School, and he’s Jewish and a budding journalist. The two plan to wed, but their families object to an interfaith marriage. And when Marian becomes pregnant, she doesn’t tell Ben. Coerced by Father Brennan (a Catholic priest who is also her uncle), Marian goes to Castleboro Mother Baby Home, an institution ruled by Sister Paulinas and Sister Agnes where “sins are purged” via abuse; i.e., pregnant girls are forced to mow the lawn by pulling grass on their hands and knees. Marian is told that her son, Adrian, will be adopted by an American family.

The riveting storyline provides many surprises as it fast-forwards to 1967 where Marian and Ben are married and have a 10-year-old daughter. Marian’s painful secret emerges when she learns that her son was dumped in an abusive orphanage not far from her middle-class home and Sister Agnes is his legal guardian. Thus begins a labyrinthine journey through red tape as the couple fight to regain their firstborn child. Ultimately, 12-year-old Adrian is placed in the Surtane Industrial School for Boys, which is rife with brutality and sexual abuse at the hands of “Christian Brother Ryder.” Though unchecked church power abounds, this is not a religious stereotype or an indictment of faith. Hateful characters like Brother Ryder are balanced with compassionate ones, such as a timid nurse from the Mother Baby Home. Father Brennan deepens into a three-dimensional character who struggles to do what is right.

Henry weaves multilayered themes of prejudice, corruption and redemption with an authentic voice and swift, seamless dialogue. Her prose is engaging, and light poetic touches add immediacy. Echoing the painful lessons of the Jewish Holocaust, Henry’s tale reveals what happens when good people remain silent.

My review:
I didn’t choose this book to represent Ireland when I made my list for the Around the World Challenge, but once I started reading it, I decided that it was a good fit. As promised in the description, The Whipping Club showed an unstereotypical but authentic side of Ireland, opening my eyes to the horrors of industrial schools where orphans and abandoned children were sent and severely mistreated. There was also some exploration of the treatment and perceptions of Jewish people in a highly Catholic society.

An interfaith marriage, a couple trying to regain a lost child, moral ambiguities in the Catholic Church… the description had me very excited to read the book. While it delivered most of what I expected, I felt a lack of emotional connection with the characters and plot until the very end when there was more focus on Adrian’s struggles. Much of the narration came from Marian’s perspective, and I wished I could have cared more about her as a character because it would have made the whole book more powerful.

The story shows the effects of how government paired with corrupt religion can do great harm under the guise of righteousness. It is frustrating to see Ben and Marian unable to bring their biological son back to their loving home while he suffers greater and greater misfortunes in the hands of religious-run state agencies. Though it seems like the industrial school should have been a major part of the story, it doesn’t come into play until late in book, which is unfortunate because I found that to be the most interesting part.


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