Reading this book was like riding a roller coaster of emotions. Prior to claiming it off the library hold list I was excited about tackling it, having read some very positive reviews. Then I started reading it. My excitement diminished page by page as I struggled to understand why the story jumped around in time and place, from Newfoundland after World War I to Ireland in the 1840s to Missouri in the late 19th century. Each stop seemed completely unrelated to the one that came before and the one that followed. I began to wonder how on earth this disjointed mess had earned such lavish praise.
Then, finally, I realized that what had seemed to be completely unrelated chapters were actually tied together through the family lines of Lily Duggan, who was a maid in a fancy Dublin home when former slave Frederick Douglass comes to Ireland to drum up support for the American abolition movement. Each chapter had somewhere at its heart a descendant of Lily, from the Civil War mother who helps her husband run an ice-cutting empire in the American Midwest to the journalist who chronicles one of the first transatlantic flights to the woman who loses everything in contemporary Ireland.
Once I found the common thread, my interest and appreciation for the book picked up. I enjoyed most the chapters devoted to Douglass’ sojourn in Ireland and a visit more than century later by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, trying desperately to bring Catholics and Protestants to a lasting peace in Northern Ireland. None of the stories end in triumph; the most we can hope for, McCann implies, is a sense of quiet satisfaction and no expectation of glory. Many of the characters do not achieve even that minor grace, and my heart ached for some of their stories and lives.
Although by the end I was appreciating McCann’s cleverness and deft interweaving of timelines and placelines, I just can’t give this book my highest recommendation. I don’t need or want to be hit over the head with an anvil by an author trying to convey the themes he will explore, but to read roughly a third of a book without having any idea where it’s going seemed a shade too opaque for any but the most dedicated English major used to parsing meaning from prose.
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.