A girl who found herself pregnant and unmarried had few options in 1950s Ireland, even if the father is someone she loves and plans to marry. In The Whipping Club by Deborah Henry, Marian is determined to do just that, despite one big potential obstacle: her lover is Jewish, not Catholic. Her first meeting with her potential in-laws does not go well; so much so that she decides not to tell Ben that she is pregnant and instead allows her priest uncle to spirit her away to a convent where the nuns (barely) care of the girls until they give birth.
The baby boy being given away, Marian returns home where she does marry her Jewish Ben after all, and they have another child, a girl. Their marriage is troubled in part by the secret Marian is keeping, and eventually, when she learns that the boy was not adopted but rather sent to a notorious orphanage, she begins her quest to bring him back to the family. The horrors he has seen in his first 12 years make it difficult for him to adapt to living in a normal family, and trouble ensues.
This book showed a lot of promise in its setup and its characters, but it’s not particularly well developed. The first half, in particular, suffers from a meandering point of view that makes it difficult to tell whose thoughts we are meant to be following. A paragraph might start with Marian’s thoughts and end with Ben’s, or so it seemed. The scene shifts from place to place with a startling abruptness at times, and things are revealed in an oblique way that makes you think you will learn more about them later but you never do.
A lot of these problems clear up in the second part of the book, when the boy gets sent to a sort of horrific reform school where he suffers a great deal under the hands of the Christian Brothers who run it, but by then the reader is exasperated both with the characters and the writing. Three-fourths of the way through, the tone suddenly shifts to suspense in a book that had little to that point, and the ending seems unsatisfying and unfinished.
The Whipping Club is difficult at times to read because of the abuse the children face, and at other times because it’s simply not written well. None of the characters are particularly likable, and while we are given endless passages inside their minds and thoughts, I still had difficulty understanding why either Marian or Ben chose to ever get married or stay married. In short, not a book I’d recommend in its current form.