May 29, 2007
The Birth House
The Birth House by Ami McKay
Finished on 5/23/07
Rating: 2/5 (Fair)
From the author's website:
From the Publisher -
Tradition clashes with modernity in this unforgettable debut novel, set in a small Nova Scotia village in the early 20th century, that is reminiscent of the works of Annie Proulx and Chris Bohjalian.
As a child, Dora Rare, the first female in five generations of Rares, is taken under the wing of Miss Babineau, an outspoken Acadian midwife with a gift for storytelling and a kitchen filled with herbs. As she grows into adulthood, Dora becomes Miss Babineau's apprentice, and together the pair help the women of Scots Bay through infertility, difficult labour, breech births, unwanted pregnancies, and even unfulfilling marriages.
But their idyllic community is threatened with the arrival of Gilbert Thomas, a brash medical doctor armed with promised of sterile, painless childbirth. Soon some of the women begin to question the midwives' methods - an uncertainty that erupts in a war of gossip, accusations, and recriminations after a woman dies. Overshadowed by this powerful, determined male doctor, Dora must summon all her strength and wisdom to protect herself and the birthing rituals of her ancestors, and the village she loves.
An enthralling tale with deep resonance for today, The Birth House brings to light the struggles women have faced to control their own bodies, and to keep tradition alive in the face of modernity.
My house became the birth house. That's what the women called it, knocking on the door, ripe with child, water breaking on the porch. First-time mothers full of questions, young girls in trouble, and seasoned women with a brood already at home. (I called those babies 'toesies,' because they were more than their mamas could count on their fingers.) They all came to the house, wailing and keening their babies into the world. I wiped the feverish necks with cool, moist cloths, spooned porridge and hot tea into their tired bodies, talked them back from outside of themselves.
Ginny, she had two…
Sadie Loomer, she had a girl here.
Precious, she had twins…twice.
Celia had six boys, but she was married to my brother Albert…Rare men always have boys.
Iris Rose, she had Wrennie…
All I ever wanted was to keep them safe.
Argh! I really hate it when this happens! I've read nothing but great reviews about The Birth House from various bloggers (Amelia, Sassymonkey, Sheri, Dovegreyreader, and Kailana) was thrilled to receive a beautiful hardcover copy a few months ago from the lovely Lotus in Canada. I put the book on my nightstand, waiting for the perfect time to start reading it. I should've know that May has never been a good month for reading anything other than mysteries and thrillers. I'm too busy puttering in the yard (it's amazing how fast the grass and weeds grow when it rains!), laying down fresh mulch and cleaning up after the long, cold winter. I always seem to have longer than usual "To Do" lists in May (birthdays, Mother's Day, clean the BBQ, service the A/C, clean the porch, think about cleaning the deck, yada yada yada) and now that I'm busy with my job at Barnes & Noble, my reading time has taken a bigger drop than the usual "spring fever" drop I generally experience this time of year. Thank goodness it picks back up again as summer progresses.
How's that for a long-winded explanation for the low rating for this book? I truly believe that my overall lack of enthusiasm for The Birth House is a result of bad timing. I had a tough time getting drawn into the narrative and actually considered giving up, but kept reminding myself that some of my favorite books (Atonement, The Book Thief, Life of Pi) took several chapters before grabbing my interest. So I stuck with it. And I did enjoy some parts more than others. The historical references, particularly those of the Halifax Explosion of 1917, were quite interesting and informative, and I enjoyed the friendships that developed between the members of the "Occasional Knitter's Society." I also enjoyed the epistolary device in the latter portion of the novel, as well as the inclusion of various journal entries, advertisements, and news clippings of the time.
And, I do have one lovely passage that I'd like to share. I'm going to omit a name in order to keep from spoiling part of the plot:
We failed to say goodbye until morning. And even now that he's left the house, his breathing is still here, in the shallow between my breasts, the wrinkle of my pillow. He has left me with a quiet, sure happiness that will not go away, and I don't think it matters if he ever says he loves me. I know him, have always known him. Same as I know he doesn't like too much sugar, not in his coffee, not in a girl. Same as I know he's never had patience for lies. Sin has many tools, but a lie has a handle to fit them all. Same as I know that tonight at midnight, or half past one, or whenever he sees that the rest of the Bay is asleep, [my omission] will make his way up the road to Spider Hill and lay his body next to mine, again.
I also enjoyed reading the following from the author's note:
When I was young, I used to watch my mother so I could learn from her. I loved sitting with her while she cooked, sewed or gardened, and even while she was putting on her makeup. One thing I remember well was her end-of-the-day ritual of emptying out her pockets onto her vanity. A spool of thread, a note from a friend, bobby pins, a recipe card, a pine cone I'd handed her as a gift, a torn-out picture from a magazine -- these treasures would sit on a mirrored tray, looking like they were ready to be presented to a queen. A reflection of her day, her art. When I sat down to write The Birth House, I realized that this was how I wanted to arrange my words, as well: by making a literary scrapbook out of Dora's days.
It truly pains me to write such a discouraging review for what many consider to be a great novel. Please don't let me dissuade you. I think it's one that deserves to be read and I hope everyone will disagree with my low rating. If anyone's interested, I'd love to pass the book on, so please leave me a comment with your request and I'll draw a name from the lot.
And do take a moment to visit Ami McKay's wonderful website! The "novelties" page is quite entertaining.