Friday, August 03, 2012

The Whipping Club by Deborah Henry

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Hardcover: 312 pages
Publisher: T. S. Poetry Press (February 10, 2012)
Price: $32.00
ISBN-10: 0984553185
ISBN-13: 978-0984553181

Author Deborah Henry has said about the writing of her debut novel: “I wrote The Whipping Club because what I found hidden, I needed to uncover.”

An understatement, no doubt, as first novels of this scope aren’t written by merely turning over a rock. That had to be at very least a sizeable boulder, and the courage to write it equally so. The Whipping Club is a story about Marian McKeever, a teacher and a Catholic, and the man with whom she falls in love, a journalist and Jewish, in Dublin, Ireland, of 1957. It is about the child she carried at the time of their engagement, but felt she couldn’t keep. It is the story of an unforgiving society that would rather look the other way than to face its troubles, about churches corrupted by power, about the dark secrets of orphanages and homes for unwed mothers, and the abuse so prevalent in these institutions.

With that premise comes a great deal of suffering, and for no one more than the abandoned child. In 1957 Ireland, to marry out of one’s faith was unacceptable enough, but to carry a child as a young, still unwed mother was beyond forgiveness. The young Marian made the heart-wrenching decision (or perhaps, more accurately, was forced into this decision by the norms of that time) to give birth to her child, but then give it up to what she hoped would be a better life than the one she could offer. She entered a home for unwed mothers, keeping her secret even from her fiancĂ©. After all, his family was already up in arms about their inter-faith marriage.

Based on extensive research, including a trip to Ireland, Henry delves deep into the horrors behind closed doors of power and privilege. Henry is herself Irish-American and born of inter-faith parents, Jewish and Catholic. A seed for a novel may be born there, but Henry has created a story from that seed that touches all hearts that can still be touched, and shakes up even those who would rather be unshaken and remain asleep—The Whipping Club whips up emotion that is difficult and painful. Few things can be more painful than the loss of a child, let alone facing up to the abuse of that child.

The home for unwed mothers is a cruel place of forced penance on pregnant girls, no matter the circumstances of their condition. The girls are sent out to “mow” the lawn by pulling up sheaves of grass with their hands. They are taunted and punished and humiliated without and beyond reason, yet their suffering is shadowed by what happens to many of their children. Rather than being adopted by families, many of the children are placed instead in orphanages where sexual abuse is rampant, beatings are an everyday occurrence, and ever thicker and darker lies are told to maintain cover. Children die, and no one flinches.

When Marian and Ben come full circle to confront the reality of the child left behind, by then having a 10-year old daughter, any fantasies Marian may have held as comfort that her child was better off are shattered. Her unwavering search for her son is perhaps not nearly as mesmerizing as her struggles to connect with him once she finds him. A great many doors come bursting open, and a great many shadows are drawn into near-blinding light.

If ever the story becomes almost too heavy to bear, it is lightened again by the characters that do the right thing, overcoming fear and threats and societal pressure. Throwing lifelines to the reader are the resilience and will to survive of the children. Children are a powerful force, and in spite of the sins of the adults, enough of them survive to give a corrupt society hope for a more tolerant and compassionate future. Classic moments of reunited mother and child, even if only momentarily, brighten the storyline enough to keep the suffering from becoming overpowering—yet just weighty enough to stay with the reader long after the book is done.

Adrian. The child she had never forgotten stood there, in between Father Brennan and Nurse, and to Father Brennan’s left, the short and strapping Sister Agnes, but they could all disappear into thin air. Except for him. The yearning had never diminished. All these years, all she had ever wanted was to see him again in the flesh, and dreamed that he would be returned to her and their home where he could be safe and happy.

“Marian crouched down so that she could gaze into his eyes. She desperately wanted him to feel her love for him. She wanted him to know that she was sorry, wanted to tell him that she hoped they could make up for lost time. All this time. Still, she could have never found him. How many times had she secretly daydreamed about him since he was ripped from her life? How her da would have wanted him, too! She must remain calm in front of the fat Sister. He was a big boy, a beautiful boy. He had the map of a McKeever on his face. She reached toward him and brought him into her arms. She felt her body shaking, the heat of shame scouring her.”

Deborah Henry’s first short story was published by The Copperfield Review, was a historical fiction finalist for Solander Magazine of The Historical Novel Society and was long-listed in the 2009/10 Fish Short Story Prize. The Whipping Club is her first novel and was chosed for Oprah’s Summer 2012 reading list. She lives in Fairfield, Connecticut, with her husband and their three children. She is currently at work on her next book. Visit her at Henry’s work has also been published in The Smoking Poet, where an author interview will be featured in the Fall 2012 issue.