My first ‘real’ job after University involved working in child protection and youth justice. I worked with kids and their families, though mostly the kids and young offenders themselves.
When this book came up for review and I read the blurb it seemed kinda obvious that there was going to be an underlying theme of abuse and I wasn’t too sure I wanted to go back to that world. Not because I found it too traumatic or it offered a trigger of sorts (though warning: it may for some), but because it was just something I left behind a career or three ago.
However, Australian author Meredith Jaffe handles the issue of child sexual abuse with a very light and deft touch. In fact, it’s really mostly spoken of in its aftermath.
The Making of Christina
by Meredith Jaffe
Published by Pan Macmillan Australia
on July 25th 2017
Genres: General Fiction, Women's Fiction
ISBN: 174354846X, 9781743548462
Interior designer Christina Clemente is caught off guard by an intense affair with her charismatic client. Jackson Plummer quickly becomes the cure to Christina's loneliness and a surrogate father to her young daughter Bianca.
When Jackson suggests moving to a run-down farm in the mountains, Christina is uncertain about uprooting their lives in the city. She soon forgets her hesitation, absorbing herself in restoring the rambling century-old house, Bartholomews Run, and becoming obsessed with solving its mysterious history.
But while living on the isolated farm, her once effervescent child transforms into a quiet sullen teenager and Christina increasingly struggles to connect with her.
Because Bianca has a secret. And the monstrous truth threatens to destroy them all.
This book unfolds in multiple timeframes. The constant however, is the present…. in the lead-up to Christmas. Christina is staying (well, living) with her elderly mother, Rosa and fervently hoping her daughter Bianca – who’s teaching English in Costa Rica – will return home for the holidays as planned.
We quickly learn that Christina’s staying with her mother out of desperation, having lost everything following the ‘breakdown of her relationship -with Jackson and Bianca – and messy court case.
We’re then taken back in time intermittently (regularly returning to the present as Christmas nears); over a 15 year period.
Christina’s story starts when she first meets Jackson – whose house she’s renovating. She’s obviously smitten and happily moves into a long-term affair though knows about his wife and three children. Eventually, a decade or so into their relationship Jackson’s marriage falls apart and he suggests the move to the country.
At that point Bianca still adores Jackson, who’s a far cry from her own disinterested father and though Christina’s nervous about giving up her job and her friends, she’s dreaming of the life she’s never had.
We already know things go downhill from there, but Jaffe only takes us back to incidents now and then… they’re signs for us as we know what’s happened, but also points (in retrospect) at which Christina later wonders if she failed as a mother.
She’s done the counselling, she knows logically that what Jackson did was not her fault. That she was, in a way, his victim too. The problem with accepting that is that it ignores the unassailable fact that she made it possible to be Jackson’s victim. Blinded by her need to be loved, her loneliness, her and her pride. She was thought everything good about her was because of Jackson. p 263
The secrets Bianca’s keeping manifest via her sulky and withdrawn behaviour and significant personality changes, until a crisis means she’s forced to share her horrifying secret. Christina hears the news from a doctor and – thankfully – although she cannot believe Jackson is capable of anything like that, knows her daughter is not a liar and does not doubt her word.
But it’s possibly too late for their relationship as Bianca suggests she felt unable to speak up because she knew how much her mother loved the lifestyle Jackson afforded them…. which makes Christina struggle even more with her guilt.
When the truth came out, Bianca’s insomnia disappeared and Christina’s started. The telling had been Bianca’s saving, the knowing Christina’s undoing. p 196
We’re vaguely privy to the aftermath of the allegations and then the trial – but in a superficial way. For those worried about exposure to the subject matter, there are no details and no specific events are mentioned. It’s something Christina ponders on as she wasn’t allowed to be present for any interviews or the trial itself so only has the transcript… which (in the present) she’s not read. And she can’t decide if doing so will give her the closure she needs.
Although we’re taken back to the past it sort-of provides backstory for what is essentially about Christina’s own crisis of confidence… a loss of herself and the slow journey she’s now on to pick up the pieces. Interestingly Bianca plays a very small role in the book which all unfolds from Christina’s point of view. There are red flags for we readers throughout her story and some are even pointed out by her friends…. but – as explained via Detective Rushmore (and Jaffe) Jackson has done what all good predators do when seeking vulnerable women and victims; he’s charmed them, isolated them and made them completely dependent on him.
I’ve possibly said a little more about the plot than I should but… one of the things that worried me about this book was the angst I was going to struggle with, while watching Bianca suffer. And, because of my work history and general cynicism, I’m pretty hard to shock. However… this book is far more about the relationships, the game-playing, the power and the manipulation than it is about the abuse itself.
As it happens, I think the book might have been strengthened if Jaffe had also shared the story from Bianca’s point of view. It (Bianca’s admissions and her recovery) seemed to be a bit of a glaring gap for me – though I do understand Jaffe’s intention to focus more on Christina… who’s been unable to control the before and the after. (And it is a rarity to have the story unfold from the helpless bystander’s – though still a victim, but you know what I mean – point of view.)
This would be an excellent book club read and offer a lot of opportunities for discussion and debate.
The Making of Christina by Meredith Jaffe was published in Australia by Pan Macmillan and is now available.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.