REVIEW: The Making of Her by Bernadette Jiwa

In brief: Joan seems to have it all in 90s Dublin, but time spent in London in the 60s changed her forever. Now the daughter she gave up for adoption wants to make contact…

The good: Not what I expected from the cover, but a more nuanced story.

The not-so-good: Appearances are everything for many of the characters.

Why I chose it: Thanks to Penguin for the copy.

Year: 2022

Pages: 336

Publisher: Bantam (Penguin)

Setting: Dublin & London

Rating: 8 out of 10

The Making of Her is an assured debut novel that brings to mind Maeve Binchy in some respects, yet it deals with much heavier (and more delicate) topics. The cover was somewhat deceptive for me, as I was expecting a lighter romp through the swinging 60s and less of a thud when Joan’s secret is finally revealed. Delightfully, this book is more serious, taking into account poverty, keeping up appearances and religious attitudes.

The story is told across two time periods, both featuring Joan. In the 1990s, Joan is married to a rich man with a bright daughter and all she could want in a huge house. Unfortunately, she has to share that house with a crotchety mother-in-law and a husband that is turning into his mother rapidly. When Joan receives a letter from the daughter she gave up for adoption in the 1960s, she is scared but ready to make contact, as her daughter Emma now needs her. The story then goes back to how Joan and husband Martin met, and the shocking poverty of her youth that caused her family to be split and to leave school for work on the production line. When she gets into trouble, she follows Martin to London for a period that will never be spoken of again – until now.

The novel explores the ramifications that the adoption had on Joan and her abilities to form ties with her second daughter Carmel. It also looks at the importance of keeping up appearances in staunchly Catholic Ireland, and how those doctrines carried through decades and divided families. Martin’s insistence that nobody know about their adopted daughter due to the potential detriment of his business and their social standing did seem rather antiquated. Perhaps it was a greater fear of his mother, or a reluctance to deviate from the social norms. For Joan, I didn’t really understand her as a character until her history was explored. It must have felt so precarious to have money, food and safety that for many years she didn’t want to rock the boat for fear of losing it all. (Although surely divorce would have been out of the question…) As she gains confidence and brings together the two halves of her lives, she becomes an easier character to understand from modern viewpoint. I didn’t feel that the subplot about Emma’s own child added that much, except for creating the sense of urgency to reconnect. (Perhaps I am biased by my own knowledge of that subject which meant I guessed that ending straightaway, even though it’s highly unlikely in real life).

Rich with detail and heartache, The Making of Her brings past decisions to life and explores how attitudes have changed.

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