Book review: The Whipping Club

Wow, now here’s one I just burned through in one weekend. This was the first book I read for our Net Galley Knock Down, so thanks to Net Galley and to T.S. Poetry Press for allowing me the privilege and opportunity to read The Whipping Club.

By all means, this is no easy “beach read”. Instead it is a searing, painful, heart-wrenching and shocking look at the Irish Industrial School system, and the charges against those nuns and priests in power at these institutions that have unfortunately become synonymous with the Catholic religion. This is one where you just have to strap yourself in and pray your stomach is strong enough for all that unfolds on these pages. And for certain, those pages will turn at a break neck speed as you delve in to horrific abuse and treatment of innocent children. It will make you question the Catholic religion and why one would chose to follow.  This is so rather unfortunate however, that is these people that have become representatives for how others view the religion. The nuns and brothers you will read about in this story will be some of the most vicious and evil people you will have ever met. That they thought they were representing the religion is an appalling shame.

Deborah Henry wrote to say this was a novel eight years in the making and most certainly its tale is an intense and powerful one. It’s not for the light of heart for certain. No, this definitely is no casual story to breeze through while sipping a mimosa on the beach. But it is completely

Synopsis from Goodreads: Inspired by her heritage and research of the Irish Industrial School system, Henry’s auspicious debut chronicles a couple’s attempt to save their son from horrific institutions.
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.

When you go to read this book, please make sure to read the synopsis! The first chapter unfolds with Marian discovering she is pregnant and at the advisement of her uncle, who is also Father Brennan, she leaves Ben without telling him of her news and goes in to the Mother Baby Home. The second chapter immediately takes up 10 years later with Marian and Ben married and with a 10 year old daughter. There is no indication, at this time, of what happened 10 years prior. However, continue reading, but with the knowledge taken from the synopsis above because it will all unfold from there.

This would be the only fault I found with this novel, in that the switch from Chapter 1 to Chapter 2 was quite jarring and confusing and there are some times where the past pops up during the present. But that is a very small matter once you immerse yourself in the pages.

The Whipping Club is one of the most engrossing and terrifying books I’ve read this year. Like I mentioned earlier, I burned through this book in one weekend. I have no recollection of anything or anyone else but of Adrian, Marian, Jo, Ben and the most evil nuns and priests/brothers I’ve come across. I simply could not tear myself away from any of the gut-wrenching, horrifying moments.

The abuse and suffering Adrian endures in the Irish Industrial School System is downright horrific. This boy is conditioned to abuse. His mother was told his life would be so much better if he were given up and adopted out to an American family (American families came to Ireland to adopt children they felt would have no ethnicity or questionable genes mucking up the works – a grand & very white child for them only please) than to live with Marian and Ben. Why, this child would only break them apart and ruin Ben’s career as a journalist. Well, since Adrian was born with mixed-blood, as Marian was Catholic and Ben, Jewish it was therefore determined that Adrian remain in the care of the orphanage and under the complete control of Sister Paulinas and Sister Agnes (insert shudder here). For 11 years Marian was not aware of this. She assumed her son was in America. Upon discovering that he was being poorly treated in an orphanage in Dublin they quickly acted and tried to bring him home and in to their family.

Unfortunately for all, poor Adrian is a terribly damaged boy as a result of years of abuse, suffering and neglect. Committed to bringing him back to the family, the Ellis’ must go endure great marital strife and unraveling of their healthy relationship with their daughter, Jo. The family unit breaks each time Adrian visits and it is here again where you see the behaviour and power these evil nuns and priests had over the children in their care. Through their abuse of power they work to keep Adrian institutionalized and apart from his true family.

You will never enjoy seeing ‘Christian Brother Ryder’s’ name ever. You will also go off and say a prayer and mourn the loss of all the souls and hearts of these children that were subjected to this horrifying treatment and abuse. An engrossing, important and gut-wrenching, 4-star read for me. It will be hard to shake this one.

You can find more about The Whipping Club and Deborah Henry at her official web site here.

Oh, and holy god, I did not see this trailer, available on Deborah Henry’s site until AFTER I read the book. The fact that Eric Roberts plays evil Brother Ryder is (unfortunately) so well performed. My heart is beating, and I cannot catch my breath. OMG, I am shaking. It’s bringing this book back to me. Ms. Henry, this is a powerful, powerful book!

Review: Glass Boys

Okay, insert sound of breath being expelled forcefully from your gut. An anxious and disturbing read for certain. But a really very good one too.

Synopsis: (taken from Goodreads) When Eli Fagan discovers the secret his eleven-year-old stepson has hidden in an old pickle jar, he is filled with blinding rage. As he destroys the jar’s contents, brothers Roy and Lewis Trench, in a drunken prank, stumble into Eli’s yard, and their poor timing costs Roy his life. Though the courts rule the death a tragic accident, the event opens a seam of hate between the two families of Knife’s Point, Newfoundland. Powerfully written, with vivid and unflinching prose, Glass Boys is an utterly riveting, deeply moving saga of the persistence of evil and the depths and limits of love.

I’ve only read two books from Newfoundland writers, Glass Boys, and The Bishop’s Man but I’ve found they both write in this distinct, dark, and secretive manner. Glass Boys is beautiful writing, extremely thought provoking but very disturbing though. I did of course feel more anxiety when reading Glass Boys and was by far more disturbed, but I at times thought back on The Bishop’s Man and how both authors would write about a situation, not fully coming out with the truth in it, but leaving much up to reader speculation.

What did Garrett have in that jar? (well, we find out) What were Wilda’s past secrets? What does Eli really mean when he takes his wife so brutally each time saying “this is what I am, not the other thing”? The reader is left to sort through these hidden thoughts and fill in the answers on their own for much of the story.

The Newfoundland which Lundrigan writes of is dark, depressed, backwater and filled with abuse. And troubling boys. Oh those troubled boys.  In the very beginning, I felt sad and sorry for Garrett, as I thought Eli quite cruel, but as he grew, as the story evolved, he changed, and oh my how difficult it became to feel anything but distaste for him. Deeply, deeply disturbed boy. (I do have to say I liked how she tied up this story between Eli and Garrett towards the end.)

“Before Eli stepped forward, he felt the very air change. Heavy now. As though weighted with something forbidden. Something ugly. He believed Lucifer was lingering around the boy, drawing circles through the air, and his heart knocked hard against his ribs as he rushed out from the brush.”

This novel is not necessarily strong in plot, if that’s what you’re after, but rather one that delves very deeply in to these boy’s lives, their minds, their family situation, abuse, their environment, the consequences of life and how it shapes them in to the men they become. 

Her writing is both stark and yet in many places quite beautiful.

“To know the blood tie had been severed, the mind tie might follow.” (Wilda)

Stark, yet great.

“As he moved over the earth, dragged by his brother, Melvin was aware of something new expanding within him. Something outside the realm of childhood. A loathing, deep and cold. Not for the snowflakes themselves, but the spaces in between.”

“could smell the lie of sugar, and the truth of grown-up sweat.”

I’m quite anxious to talk to Nicole on Tuesday night (November 29) to ask her what the inspiration was for writing this book? Why? It’s a very exciting thing being able to talk to the author personally about their books…if you can join us, remember to register over at Opinionless and we’ll hear from you on Tuesday night at 9 p.m.

Others involved in the Opinionless book reading have already posted their reviews…and yes, as they have said, it is difficult to put one particular rating on this. She does a splendid job of creating anxiety, disturbing the hell out of you, but there is sadness and tenderness as well, there is beauty in her writing. Many parts I wanted to mark down as they seemed quite lyrical. But…huge expelling of breath for the disturbing stories/lives these boys have. But she wonderfully captures the strong bond between brothers and the ending/combining/bringing together of the scattered stories and lives was perfect. And Toby couldn’t have said anything more perfect to Wilda than what he did. Bang on baby!