The Whipping Club by Deborah Henry

The Whipping Club by Deborah Henry
Published by T.S. Poetry Press
Review copy provided by the publisher in conjunction with TLC Book Tours

Marian and Ben are a young couple, deeply in love and living in Ireland in the 1950’s. Unfortunately Marian is Catholic and Ben Jewish, so the chances of their living a successful and happy life together are not likely as neither of their parents would endorse such a marriage. They do end up getting married, though, despite the obstacles against them, but not before Marian gives up the baby they conceived before marriage for adoption, as she is convinced by her uncle and priest that Ben and his family will not accept her if she reveals that she got pregnant before he asked for her hand in marriage. Marian is told that this baby, a boy named Adrian, was given to a nice Irish couple that could not have a child of their own. Years later, after Ben and Marian are happily married with a daughter, Marian discovers that Adrian actually has been in an orphanage all this time, and she goes to visit him there. Everything in Ben and Marian’s life changes from that point on.

This was an interesting read for me, because the premise sounded compelling but the execution was different from what I was expecting, but at the same time I couldn’t seem to pull away from the story. I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about it until the very end – I kept going back and forth between love and hate, and I know that’s strange but I truly couldn’t decide my feeling on the book until the very end, and even now I’m still not completely sure where I stand.

I started off with love. The characters definitely drew me in, and I loved the complexity of their different religious backgrounds and how at that time in Ireland, it was absolutely not OK for a Catholic and a Jew to marry. It was inspiring how these two people came together anyway, despite everything trying to pull them apart, and I liked the characters of Marian and Ben and I loved their relationship.

Once the book moved into the time when Marian discovered Adrian was at the orphanage for his entire life (I think he was eleven or twelve years old at that point), things got weird for me. The book would switch perspectives from Marian or Ben to Adrian and the transitions were not as smooth as they could have been. In addition, Adrian suffered an awful childhood which included abuse in many forms, and this abuse was detailed to the point that my heart just hurt so badly. I felt so, so awful reading these scenes and it made me incredibly angry at Marian for putting him in that situation. I couldn’t forgive her for her dishonesty in not telling Ben about his son from the beginning, and I couldn’t forgive the one awful mistake she made in putting him up for adoption that caused Adrian to have such an incredibly difficult, sad life and turn into a pretty vile person as a result.

I was hopeful that the novel would end on something like a happy note, but unfortunately that wasn’t really the case. While there is some hope at the end, it is abundantly clear that Adrian is a damaged person because of what happened to him throughout his childhood, and I had no confidence that he could ever truly recover from the abuse he suffered and several traumatic events that he experienced as a child. It was truly heartbreaking and sad to read and the novel just put me in such a melancholy mood.

So when I finished The Whipping Club, I was tempted to feel that I did not enjoy the book, that I wouldn’t recommend it, and it was overall a bad experience for me. But thinking deeper about my experience with the novel, I did like a lot about the book – specifically the characters and the unique premise – which causes me to feel somewhat positively about it. I’m still sort of in this in-between place about it, to be honest, so I’m not sure that I can really recommend this one. But I will say that it is certainly discussion-worthy!

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6 thoughts on “The Whipping Club by Deborah Henry

  1. This one has sounded interesting to me for some time now, though I can imagine that I would probably feel the same way about it that you did. It sounds like it was frustrating at times, but also that it had some great character development. I do still want to read this one, although my reactions to it may be tempered now.

  2. I have a policy about books in Ireland. Over the years I have discovered that they are NEVER NOT SAD. Seriously, like, never. They’re always sad. So unless like six different people claim an Irish novel is amazing, I pretty much don’t read them ever. The last one was Breakfast on Pluto, in 2007.

  3. The fact that you can say it is discussion worthy makes it a worthwhile read in my opinion, especially if you have someone to discuss it with – that makes all the difference.

    Thanks for being on the tour!

  4. I have to agree with Jenny – many books set in Ireland are dark – over the years, there has been a lot of sadness in that country. This one definitely intrigues me. Great review!

  5. As an Irish person, I’d love to disagree! But, and I’m smiling as I write this, it’s hard to argue against. Which might explain my own preference for American fiction…

    In relation to this book, the treatment of children in State or Church-run orphanages has emerged in all its horror over the last 20 years, leading to considerable soul-searching. We’re not great at accountability in Ireland – no perp walk here (!) – and strides have been made to improve child protection.

    Adoption was often a woman’s only choice as pre-marital sex was frowned upon by the Church and, consequently, society, with the woman being stigmatised and isolated. A woman either emigrated, went to England for an abortion, went away ‘to an aunt’ or convent to give birth and put the child up for adoption or, in rare cases, became the child’s ‘aunt’ or ‘big sister’ as the baby was raised by her own parents.

    That whole phase in our history, which lasted far too long, is undoubtedly a dark stain that still has ramifications in families and our society. And, for other readers, while it sounds like a tough book to read, it may well be instructive as to the price ordinary individuals pay in a repressive society, where those institutions charged with people’s care abuse that duty.

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