The dedicatory page of this work reads in a chilling manner: For all the kids who never had a chance to answer back. This setting is Dublin at an indeterminate time in the mid-twentieth century and details life at a boys’ school run by a Catholic order, in this case spoofed as ”the Brothers of Godly Coercion for Boys of Meager Means.” There is, however, little comical on most days in this particular schools. Efforts by a handful of lay teachers to ameliorate the boys’ problems are overwhelmed by the larger ugliness of authority used abusively.
Students are subjected to brutal punishments, learning useless materials and becoming de-humanized themselves in the face of the brothers’ behaviors towards them. As the school gradually and literally falls apart, so do many of the characters.
Declan and Finbar, brothers who have moved to Dublin with their parents, lead Finbar to this school. Both boys gradually learn the tactics of survival in their new settings. Finbar’s efforts to find friends and escape the brutality of the brother/teachers are a horrific look at the types of criminality some forms of old-school Roman Catholic instruction took in Ireland. Through Declan’s life also comes literary reflection on the plight of unmarried pregnant girls in some of the Roman Catholic institutions in the country.
This is a compelling and frightening story of what happens to both children and adults when the forms of religion replace the heart of it. In the author’s acknowledgements he lists a web site: http://www.childabusecommision.ie The site is worth a visit as it provides the historical background for this beautifully written novel.