Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Book Review: THE WHIPPING CLUB by Deborah Henry

THE WHIPPING CLUB A Novel by Deborah Henry
T.S. Poetry Press, February 2, 2012   ISBN 978-0-98445531-7-4 (Paperback)

“The Church and State behave as incestuous bedfellows, keeping the whole of Ireland in a guilt-ridden headlock.”

As a second-generation Irish-American who has made 18 visits “home” to Ireland, I know something about this country and about its capital city Dublin in particular.  I also know about the history of the Jews in Ireland.  I have a friend who is related to Ben Briscoe, the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Dublin (elected in 1956).  I’ve paid several visits to The Irish Jewish Museum, opened in 1985 by then-Israeli President Chaim Herzog (born in Belfast in 1918).  To quote Kathy Griffin, as an Irish-American Catholic from an urban area, I feel as though I’m “Jew-adjacent,” in that faith, family, oppression, guilt, survival, tenacity, language, food,  lust and humor are central themes to our cultural and life experiences.  Deborah Henry’s debut historical novel serves as a marvelous introduction to the specific topic of Jews and Catholics in Dublin.  However, Henry’s astonishing gift as a storyteller leaves no doubt that The Whipping Club has universal appeal as a tale about marriage, family, love, loss and redemption.

In 1957 Marian McKeever (23), a Catholic school teacher employed at The Zion School in the small Jewish enclave in Dublin called Little Jerusalem, has fallen in love with Ben Ellis (24), a Jewish journalist.  In fact, Marian is pregnant.  She confides her condition to her uncle, Father Brennan, who lays out her options for Marian.  She can marry Ben without telling him she’s pregnant.  Or she can go away, have the baby and place it up for adoption, then return home and allow Ben to marry her on his own terms.  Her uncle says, “Because sometimes love isn’t enough, Marian.  That’s the truth.”   That very night Marian meets Ben’s parents Samuel and Beva.  She realizes that his mother Beva, who escaped The Holocaust but lost all of her family, will never accept that Ben loves a non-Jew and wants to marry outside of his faith.  Harsh words are spoken by both women, and Marian leaves Ben’s home and makes her decision about the baby.

The plot leaps ahead to 1967.  Marian and Ben are married, and have a beautiful daughter Johanna (age 9) whom they call “Jo.”  They live in a lovely home in Donnybrook, south of the Liffey.  Marian, still deeply in love with Ben, stays at home and takes care of their daughter while Ben works at The Irish Times as a reporter.  But the Briscoe’s are not the complete picture of contentment.  Marian is bored with being a housewife.  Ben is quite involved with his journalism career, and often is not at home.  Marian hates to admit to the disappointment she feels in her life because she carries a larger burden--guilt.  Marian took her uncle’s advice and went off to the Castleboro Baby Home, run by the villainous Sister Paulinas (whom Marian dubbed “Sister Penis”) to have the baby without Ben’s knowledge.  She gave birth to a son, Adrian, who would be 11-years-old now.  She believes that he was placed with an American couple.  An unexpected visitor soon brings news which upends everything and raises doubts for the entire family about themselves, about their marriage, about who they believe they are, and about their country.

The Whipping Club is a book to be savored.  While the plot twists are riveting, truly this book is about the journey, not the destination.  Deborah Henry knows the real language which all couples speak, which all families speak.  While the reader focuses on the family story, social and political conditions are strongly drawn.  Henry’s naturalistic prose renders each scene authentic, and she endows the novel with just the right details, small and grand, in terms of time, place and characters.   One of the author’s finest feats is that she is able to summon up insight and even sympathy into even the most profligate clergy members.  This is a thoroughly great historical drama, and I eagerly await Henry’s next novel.