Review: The Whipping Club by Deborah Henry

I got a digital copy of this book from NetGalleyI haven’t been compensated for writing my review in any way and the fact that the book came free of charge didn’t influence me either.   

Book info:
form: e-book, e-pub
target audience: adults
genre: historical fiction with social issues
pages: 345
Marian McKeever and Ben Ellis are not typical young couple in 1957 Dublin, Ireland; she’s a Catholic teacher and he’s a Jewish journalist at the beginning of his career. They are very much in love with each other and plan to marry but their families object. Then Marian gets pregnant; she intends to tell Ben while eating a diner with his family but the same night Ben’s father has a stroke and dies. Believing that she has to  protect her future with Ben who, mourning for his father, is clearly not ready for a shotgun marriage, Marian feels she must deal with that problem on her own.
Her uncle, a Catholic priest called Father Brennan, recommends that Marian goes to the Castleboro Mother Baby Home, a kind of shelter for unwed pregnant women. He doesn’t tell her that it is an institution where “sins are purged” via abuse; i.e., pregnant girls are forced to mow the lawn by pulling grass on their hands and knees. After the birth Marian is told that her newborn son, Adrian, will be adopted by an American family so she leaves the baby with the sisters and pays the adoption fee. It proves to be a grave mistake.
A decade later, Ben and Marian, now wed, raise their ten-year-old daughter, Johanna. After a while the nurse who delivered Adrian pays Marian a visit. She tells her that her son wasn’t adopted at all – he is kept in a notorious Catholic orphanage, not far from Dublin. Marian, feeling horrible pangs of conscience, decides to do everything to bring Adrian home and reunite her family. She starts by confronting her husband – telling him about her first pregnancy ordeal. So 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, mainly at the hands of “Christian Brother Ryder” and his minions. Will his parents manage to help him? 
What I liked:
This novel is set against the political backdrop of postwar Ireland but echoing the painful lessons of the Jewish Holocaust, and I found such a setting rather interesting.  Mrs. Henry has a great narrative voice, very pleasant to read; she can keep you interested even when she is telling you about an ordinary family life. The plot of this book was far from simple, though – it is  a wrenching drama with suspense elements, spanning a decade or so, interweaving the stories of several characters, some of them pretty dramatic like that of an inmate-friend of Adrian, Peter.
Horrible villains like Brother Ryder are balanced with compassionate characters, such as a timid nurse from the Mother Baby Home. Father Brennan I found actually the most interesting personage here – he definitely deepens into a three-dimensional character, facing the atrocities committed in the name of his religion and struggling to do what is right.
I’ve never been a member of a book club but I suppose this novel would be a perfect position to discuss with others. It deals with highly controversial issues: the role of religion in a society, the nature of sin, guilt, redemption and what happens when good people remain passive and  silent.
What I didn’t like:
I must admit the ending seemed a bit rushed to me. I also chuckled a lot reading about those ‘horrible’ Upper Silesian mines where our young hero wanted to hide for a year or two to escape from the Irish Industrial School system. Well, certainly no mine is safe or nice to work in, take it from a miner’s daughter, but there are far worse places… like orphanages.
I am also not fond of the title itself (yes, I have been displeased with plenty of titles lately but what can be done?)  as it relates to just one institution mentioned rather late in the book. I found it misleading – it might suggest the book is about quite different subjects.

Finally let me just warn you that there are some scenes in the book that might make you uncomfortable to say the least of it. Sexual abuse and paedophilia are never nice topics. Although the descriptions are not overly detailed or graphic, they remain distressing nevertheless, especially if you are blessed with vivid imagination.
Final verdict:
An interesting but slightly controversial position, definitely not a book you  should read just with entertainment in mind. I don’t regret reading it but I don’t know whether I would like to reread.
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11 Responses to Review: The Whipping Club by Deborah Henry

  1. The Whipping Club does seem an odd title for the novel as you describe it.The Catholic Church has a lot to answer for. Some day maybe they will get a pope who will put the interests of the parish ahead of the institution.I can't read stuff like this. It is too upsetting.

  2. Anachronist says:

    The Red Witch – I think the title was supposed to make this book sound more sensational. Some editors have really strange ideas concerning the titles. The Surtane Industrial School for Boys was called unofficially that name.The Catholic Church has a lot to answer for.Definitely true.Some day maybe they will get a pope who will put the interests of the parish ahead of the institution.The interests of a parish are well cared of. The parishioners are the ones who suffer. I don't know whether even the best pope can change a whole fossilized institution. To tell you the truth I am sceptical unless a miracle happens.

  3. carol says:

    The setting sounds rather fascinating, but I think it might be a tougher book to read than I want.

  4. Tracy says:

    Agree totally with your comment, Red Witch.

  5. Anachronist says:

    I do try to warn about difficult topics so nobody gets an unpleasant surprise.

  6. Anachronist says:

    I understand, carol. That's why reading a review is sometimes a good thing.

  7. You had me all up until the end. Mostly it's because I can't handle sexual abuse or regular abuse concerning children. Kind of makes me want to vomit in my mouth. Other than that though, the book seems like a pretty good read. I just don't do sad very often.

  8. Tasha B. says:

    Hm, this book sounds pretty hard to take.

  9. Blodeuedd says:

    Arghh, going crazy, i can't comment on nay blogs with threaded comments today, only like this.but yes it does sound like a good book for a bookclub

  10. Anachronist says:

    Jen – I completely understand. The worst thing is that I've heard of such cases IRL. Tasha – sometimes I like hard. I do not like boring, though.

  11. Anachronist says:

    I am glad you posted a comment at all – do not let them bore you to death!

Comments are closed.