Cover Image: Girl in the Making

Girl in the Making

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Member Reviews

This is a very touching coming-of-age story written from the perspective of the protagonist starting from her early childhood years. Her language and her thoughts evolve as she grows. I found it incredibly accurate, and it brought me back to my own childhood mind as I identified with some of the thought processes and feelings. Especially how she could count ‘every crack on the ceiling’ or exactly how many tiles were on the bathroom wall, as somehow there is infinite time to notice these details as a child.

It reflects how super sensitive to detail children are as they learn how to navigate the world. The inner voice in Jean’s head also takes us through her decision-making processes, how self-conscious she felt towards others, and how both her innocence and self-awareness progressed.

The reader really feels the acute tension and loneliness that Jean is living with. Hers is not a happy home, there is abuse, betrayal, and her mother seems to have (post-natal?) breakdowns. She refers to her own father as HE which indicates her resentment towards him. She also feels an overwhelming sense of responsibility to take care of her siblings and to overcompensate for her parents’ shortcomings towards their own children.

I have not read another book that so authentically recounts the world through a child’s eyes so well, it is a wonderful piece of writing. I look forward to reading more from this author.

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Frank McCourt was quoted as saying, “The happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.” and sure, for Jean, our protagonist in Girl in the Making there's truth in that, by the bucket load.

Jean Kennedy takes us into the inner sanctum of her life as she narrates her story - from toddlerhood to adulthood - inviting us, the reader, to hear the things that she dare not speak to anyone else. And, of course, that's a key concept here: Jean holds no sway over those around her, but to the reader, her voice carries all the power.

Jean lives in 1970s-80s Dublin, and her world is subject to men’s authority and entitlement over everything. Her beloved momma is only of use for keeping the house and having baby after baby; there'll be none of that ‘women’s lib’ around here. Her father is generally referred to as HE or HIM and nearly always negatively - it's clear the family are fearful of him, his violent outbursts, his affairs go unchecked because he’s a good job, and how would they manage without him? He quite literally holds all the power.

This is a concept she soon picks up on - noting that if she could be more like her brother Tom, then maybe, just maybe, she could blend in and be let away both with the grind of daily life and much more sinister attention coming her way.

The story is splendidly written, giving our young protagonist a realistic voice and making you feel like you are right there with Jean, experiencing it all yourself.

But this is more than one girl's story; it is the story of how societal norms - the influence of the Church and the fear of what others might think, being is more important than what's going on in your family - are set to make these types of family dynamics feasible.

Highly recommended reading, but beware trigger warnings for this one. 4.5⭐

Many thanks to the publisher for an advance copy via NetGalley; as always, this is an honest review.

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Tolstoy wrote that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but there are a few common ingredients that pretty much guarantee an unhappy outcome. Verbal and physical abuse. Sexual abuse. Substance abuse. Neglect. Depression. And silence.

This book comes with a trigger warning that I wish I had paid more attention to. No doubt many readers will find it triggering, upsetting and painful, whether or not they have personal experience of the situations described. Still, I could not put it down (although it kept me awake nights). You cannot spend time with Jean Kennedy without deeply feeling her pain.

This book is astoundingly well written. Let me say that I was tempted to stop reading after just a few pages, written from the perspective of a very young child -- I found it annoying and unconvincing. It's only the first pages though, then the novel vastly improves.

There is so much that is good about this book. The characters are vivid, the situations totally believable and immersive. You feel like you are right there with Jean experiencing it all yourself.

But what lifts it above so many similar books is its astounding psychological insight. Fitzgerald captures how abuse corrodes the inner being of a person -- the soul, for want of a better word, although I don't believe in souls. How it makes a person so cut off from her own feelings that there is a black hole inside. It is heartbreaking to watch Jean unable to assert herself, untethered, having no control or agency to give her the strength to get out of dangerous situations. Nothing solid to grasp at, only the panic and the shutting down. It is the 'freeze' part of 'fight, flight or freeze', perfectly captured.

Like Jean, I grew up in a middle class area of Dublin. I know the neighbourhoods described very well, making it all the easier to picture her in them. I am only three years older than the character. And I know very well the silence and taboos of 'typical' Irish families at that time. How mothers - exhausted by caring for large families - could have such an eroded sense of self that they would defend the father rather than her children (remember, married women in Ireland did not have full employment rights: for example, there was ban on employing married women in the civil service and wider public and semi-state sectors persisted until 1973, and various other bars to working in the industrial sector, making married women 100% financially dependent on their husbands...).

And children -- especially girls -- were taught to be obedient, subservient, and to never, ever question or challenge authority. Men held all the power, especially fathers (and Fathers, as is only too well known). And everybody turned a blind eye to their family's Uncle Ronnie. Men (and women) abused alcohol. Doctors doled out Valium prescriptions to women like they were throwing confetti. Talking about sex was taboo, unless it was slurs and 'jokes' about sluts and 'jailbait' (I heard enough of those as a kid).

Of course the type of family described in Girl in the Making is a subset. Of course not all families were like that. But the elements were all in place to make these types of family dynamics possible.

Girl in the Making is a book that no doubt needed to be written. It warrants reading and should provoke discussion. But oh is it hard to read, so hard. It is devastating, but beautiful.

The novel ends when Jean is 18, in university and, hopefully, on the cusp of rising above her childhood. She made it, just.

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Utterly miserable and I love it.

That sounds glib but this book isn’t for the faint-hearted. The book starts with young Jean at the age of three. She sets the scene of her family life in Dublin. The writing seems a little bizarre as the story is told by a child but there is genius in how this is done. Through her eyes, we see how adults can deceive a child and how they innocently accept what they are told. Jean continues to narrate her story until the age of 18 and my desire to hold her hand and befriend her was powerful! Jean was a beautiful character.

The book comes with trigger warnings of sexual abuse but I think it needs a siren sticker.

This book was wonderful, heartbreaking, realistic and immersive.

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Heartbreakingly poignant, I was fully absorbed in this coming of age novel. The topics were well handled and the writing was excellent. Loved the character development, especially Jean. Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the ARC

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This is a sensitive portrayal of a young girl coming of age in Ireland in the 1970s and '80s. Although Jean is reasonably happy at home living with her auntie, her mother and her baby brother, she is not entirely safe.

Studying in London in the late '80s, I remember my amazement - while watching the movie Nuts, starring Barbra Streisand - that the issue of child sexual abuse was addressed. It was so rarely spoken of.

And at a time when Ireland was more conservative - and decidedly more hypocritical - especially given the influence of the church and the fear of what others might think, how much worse would things have been?

As this story makes clear, a child's voice was all too easy to overlook. Or even wilfully ignore.

The book paints a vivid picture of life in suburban Dublin during the time period described. It brings the characters alive on the page, particularly Jean, in whose voice the story is told.

I think Jean works effectively as a protagonist in this book. She is a gentle soul, and it is hard not feel for her plight. The novel comes with a trigger warning on sexual abuse. The book gets 3.5 stars.

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