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. 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. Thus begins a labyrinthine journey through red tape as the couple fight to regain their firstborn child. Ultimately, 12-year-old Adrian is placed in the Surtane Industrial School for Boys, which is rife with brutality and sexual abuse at the hands of “Christian Brother Ryder.”
Though unchecked church power abounds, this is not a religious stereotype or an indictment of faith. Hateful characters like Brother Ryder are balanced with compassionate ones, such as a timid nurse from the Mother Baby Home. Father Brennan deepens into a three-dimensional character who struggles to do what is right. Echoing the painful lessons of the Jewish Holocaust, Henry’s tale reveals what happens when good people remain silent.
This book...had so much potential. Ireland at a time of great unrest and upheaval, love that transcends religion and family, dilemmas around faith and social mores, what more could you ask for? Unfortunately, I think Deborah Henry bit off a little more than she could handle with this book. It’s a big, complicated story to tell, and while it had the potential to be compelling, the execution was not flawless. The transitions and dialogue were choppy and at times confusing, and the characters seemed flat. Marian remains unloveable, Ben is unapproachable and we don’t ever get a sense of who he really is, and Jo, their lone legitimate child, doesn’t behave like any child I know (although I don’t have children of my own so take this criticism with a grain of salt).
I have to say that it appears Henry did her homework, and I learned a lot about Ireland in this book. I found parts of it interesting--enough so to keep reading--and I like that she didn’t make any one group purely innocent or purely evil. This seems to be to be an accurate representation of any religion, and I think it’s easy for storytellers to gloss over this realization in the interest of making their preferred group look like the victim or martyr. In the end though, the book was sad and dispiriting and offered little in the way of hope or redemption, either for the characters or the reader.
Disclosure: TLC Book Tours provided me with a complimentary copy of this book to review. The opinions and views are all mine.