‘Venerating’ and Abusing the Mothers

A book review by Frances Devlin-Glass

Bernadette Jiwa: The Making of Her, Penguin Random House Australia, Sydney, 2022.

ISBN: ISBN: 9781761045004

RRP: $32.99

Bernadette Jiwa’s debut novel deals in a social realist manner with the knotty issue of child removal from families across two generations. It appears to be pitched at young women who belong to an era in which such horrors may be forgotten and it will serve to explain the social forces ranged against women in Ireland in the twentieth century. It does not give us the horrors of the Magdalene Laundries, but instead a later generation, one with access to money, who can buy their way out of social disgrace.

The story is mainly Joan’s. She’s from the down-at-heel part of Harold’s Cross and she’s a teenager of the ’60s with some of the sexual desires, but none of the freedoms because she’s in Ireland. Joan falls for a lad, Martin Egan, from a rich mercantile family and engages in unwise sexual experimentation. He has internalised the moral puritanism of his bullying, class-conscious mother, almost without words needing to be said, and is in fear and awe of her need to protect the family’s reputation (for fear of losing customers, allegedly). A marriage with a pregnant girlfriend is not to be countenanced and Joan pays the price for birthing and relinquishing her child secretly in England. The costs accrue not only in her lifetime, but in her daughters’ broken lives. 

Sadly, Joan cannot expect succour from her own family, where a different kind of oppression ruled her mother and siblings in the form of a drinking father and a mother dead too early. Joan’s siblings, those who cannot be supported by an inebriate father, are seemingly casually ‘entrusted’ to orphanages and the adoption system. Joan’s only reliable support is her sister, but she cannot afford to tell her of the pregnancy for several decades. She is forced to maintain the façade of the ‘good marriage’, certainly one that was upwardly mobile, but the costs are immense, and intergenerational. So, the novel deals in class issues, in the ways in which adoption and ‘giving away’ of children is normalised, in this case not so much as punishment as to avoid loss of social face. It is hard to believe that the decision to keep or relinquish the child might be considered not legitimately one for a woman to make in progressive ’60s London. It is Martin, the man she will later marry in Dublin, who makes the decision for her, and she is not party to it.

The narrative is complicated by the relinquished daughter who has a son in need of stem cells from a family donor. This is where you might think the novel takes a trip into sentimentality: child dying of leukemia; father unwilling to be tested lest the guilty secret emerge; estranged daughter returning to the orbit of the mother who neglected her in her grief at losing her first child; and new sibling relationships emerging. However, this is avoided by the plain, serviceable prose, which does not deliver false options for easy, happy endings, but nonetheless asserts the need for both Joan and her daughter Carmel to question the rights of the man in their life, a husband and father, to define their lives. One of the touching characterisations in the novel is that of the guest-house-keeper who has seen women in Joan’s predicament, desperate Irish exports to England, for either abortions or delivery-and-adoption, and expresses her solidarity with this naïve young woman. Another nuance is how Jiwa treats the found daughter whose first priority is not getting to know the mother she lost, but caring for her own sick son. It does indeed chart a new understanding of the long-term consequences of practices that were devastating for mothers. It points to more humane ways of dealing with inconvenient pregnancies and gives much more agency to the women who do not necessarily agree that giving up a child is ‘best for baby’.

This book challenges patriarchal assumptions and does so firmly, revealing in the process a comradely solidarity between women that can spring out of the most cursed family relationships. Drink and loose talk in the boozer are interrogated, and the taste for ‘good craic’ which can permanently damage reputations in a tiny population. London is not far enough from Dublin to make Joan safe. What makes one feel more secure in the future is the existence of well-educated professional women like Joan’s daughter Carmel who fearlessly look a beloved father in the eye and tell him that he’s failed the family. 

This is a moving and useful book about historical practices that could disappear from collective memory and that need to be understood from the point of view of how they impacted generations of mothers and children. It is truly of our post-religious secular world.  It is fascinating to see this issue treated not as ruled by church authorities, but to observe how the focus has shifted to systemic sexism. It is also inspiring to see women working together to challenge the structures that have so cruelly hurt mothers and children. The image that best encapsulates Joan’s rage is her uprooting of Martin’s bulbs in the manicured garden of their mansion.

Bernadette Jiwa, an Irish-born (and now an Irish-Australian) writer, is to be commended for the invitation to understand deeply such massive intergenerational trauma, and for doing it in a way that is understated and not melodramatic. It is guaranteed to hold your attention.

Frances Devlin-Glass

Frances taught Literary Studies and has a special interest in writing by and about women. She is a member of the Tinteán collective.