The Whipping Club

By Herald de Paris Contributor's Bureau on April 23, 2012

This review was written for Herald de Paris, the world’s leading traditional new media bi-lingual news journal.

By Hubert O’Hearn
THUNDER BAY (Herald de Paris) – The following appeared in the May 20, 2009 edition of the Belfast Telegraph under the headline: Thousands Raped in Ireland’s Christian Brothers Schools

The report found that molestation and rape were “endemic” in boys’ facilities, chiefly run by the Christian Brothers order, and supervisors pursued policies that increased the danger. Girls supervised by orders of nuns, chiefly the Sisters of Mercy, suffered much less sexual abuse but frequent assaults and humiliation designed to make them feel worthless.

The report referred to was that of High Justice Sean Ryan’s investigation into Child Abuse in the Republic – that’s the Southern part in case you didn’t know. That the Ryan report ran 2,600 pages speaks, well, volumes about the systemic abuse of children under the supposed care of the mother church.

Look, this review of a marvelous, moving novel is personal to me and you’d best know why before reading any further. As a child of Irish and Italian heritage there was absolutely no chance of my being raised as anything other than a devout Roman Catholic. And I stuck with it for quite a long while, despite the mordantly insulting Father Muldoon who would visit our elementary school class each Monday morning and collect the synopses we students had to write of his Sunday sermon. And I stuck with it despite the Church’s idiotic stance on abortion – I’m sorry, but so long as something is a matter of philosophical debate, ‘When does life begin?’, that is not a place suitable for legislators to venture. They can barely write a tax code so why should I trust them to interpret the origins of the soul?

I’ve likely offended several thousand readers already. Good. That’s my job, to raise your ire and focus your insight. Read on.

I finally walked out the Cathedral doors for the last time some three years ago. You’ll note the date of that Belfast Telegraph excerpt above and leap to a quite correct conclusion. Despite many an event in my life since then that would lead one to justifiably come back to the Church, crawling on knees and hands if need be, I haven’t done it. I feel the loss, yet I equally feel the victory.

You see…I need to share what follows with you so you will understand my completely visceral response to Deborah Henry’s eloquent, magnificently designed novel. For your correspondent – me – who prefers to write witty, sarcastic prose in the manner of Dorothy Parker or Pauline Kael is a survivor of child abuse.

I won’t mention the name because he is long since dead, but I remember the reach around in the elementary school washroom, the rough hand on my penis, the whispered voice telling me this is how it’s properly done. I remember the school meeting with the principal – a Nun – where I felt such guilt that I denied what had happened and apologized to the perpetrator for my ‘false’ accusation. Bad boy. Bad, bad boy.

It is a curious conclusion one comes to. Loving God while hating – it’s not too strong a word – the institutions that purport to love God. That is the strong under-current to The Whipping Club. Of all of man’s inventions – guns, guillotines and nations included – by far the stupidest was that of organized religion. This story, set at first in 1957 then continuing from 1967 to 1969, has its central tragedy set by religious idiocy. Marian Mckeever (Irish Catholic) falls in love with Ben Ellis (Irish Jew). She becomes pregnant in the pre-marital time and rather than admit to what is a cardinal sin, she goes off to a Catholic home for unwed mothers and surrenders her son, Adrian.

What follows is a story that will draw out every straw of emotion in your soul. I laughed uproariously at certain passages. One, quite early on, is when Ben brings Marian home to meet his parents. It doesn’t go well. A shiksa! Unclean! Ben’s mother asks – nay demands – where they could possibly live. Ben replies, ‘We were thinking of Donnybrook’. To which I added in thought, ‘Well aren’t we all?’

And then The Whipping Club makes you think – about the divided love parents feel towards their children. Henry is, I think, the first author I have encountered who admits the truth we are trained to never say; We do not love our children equally. We do play favourites and if you won’t admit that, why do you insist upon lying to yourself?

Speaking of children, I think that the most difficult writing an author can do is filling the thoughts and words of a child character. The instinct is to make the character too wise and the reaction is to make him or her too simple. In Johanna, the daughter of Marian and Ben who is not put up for adoption, Henry hits the sweet spot. Johanna loves her brother, she resents her brother; she protects her brother, she accomplices her brother in things that will get him in trouble. Johanna is real. Real is the rarely achieved goal of fiction.

Real is also the truth of Ben and Marian’s marriage. Oh we’ve all been there – that certain distance created by work troubles and such that leads one’s spouse to wonder if there’s an affair at foot. Or, related to the earlier point, there is the fact that while one parent may favour one child, the  other parent may favour a different child. Complications arise.

At bottom line – only because I cannot in good conscience write a review longer than the book itself – this is the best novel I have read in three years. Yes better than Julian Barnes’ Man Booker prize winning The Sense of Ending. Yes better than Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow. Yes better than Damon Calgut’s In a Strange Room. I laughed at some passages of those, cried at some, was angry at others, gave thought to a few. The Whipping Club gave me all of the above. In spades.

Be seeing you.

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Hubert O’Hearn is a Contributing Editor of San Francisco Book Review. An archive of his book reviews can be found at bythebookreviews.blogspot.com

Deborah Henry (T.S. Poetry Press 2012, Hardcover and Trade Paperback editions) 307 pages, $14.03 cover price (paperback)

You may order a copy of The Whipping Club HERE




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