May 29, 2007

The Birth House

The Birth House by Ami McKay
Contemporary Fiction
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.


  1. Hey, Les. I totally understand your disappointment. I've been there many times. My experience with this one was a little better than yours (3.75/5) and I had a difficult time sharing that with all the raving reviews! I think I concluded that it probably would be more appealing to a younger group of women (those in the throws of motherhood/birthing). Thankfully, it's just a book and we can move on to something different.

    I appreciate your honesty and sincerity in your review.

  2. So sorry to hear that you did not like it! It happens, though!

  3. Oh that's too bad. I really liked it myself. But I get that way once in a while too. It's not the book- it's me!

  4. Sorry you didn't enjoy it more, Les. This is one that's been on my list for months and I would be thrilled if you drew my name out of the hat. I will be visiting Nova Scotia this summer. Sounds like a good read before or during the trip. My fingers are crossed that your next book will captivate you more. Maybe a mystery?

  5. How was the Elizabeth Berg book? I have been eyeing it a lot lately.

  6. I run into this dilemma too. I really think that that is what happened with me and Haweswater by Sarah Hall, but then I don't know for sure because I decided not to finish it. It held a lot of promise but the timing was not right. I've yet to go back to it, but maybe someday. I keep hoping a bookloving friend will read it and convince me it's worth another try.

  7. I hear ya. Some great books usually fall prey to my fickle reading moods in the spring and summer.

  8. Joy - Yes, you and I have had a lot of disappointing reads lately, haven't we? Thanks for telling me you appreciate my honesty. Sometimes it's tough to be quite so blunt when others have loved the book in review.

    Kailana - Yep, it does happen. There's always the next book, though, right?

    Chris - Yah, I have a feeling it was more me than the book. I do plan to read her next one, though!

    Booklogged - So far, you're the only one who has asked to have your name thrown in the hat, so I think you're the winner. I'll let you know for sure in another day or two.

    I am reading a mystery right now and am completely engrossed! It's just the ticket. Now to remember this next May...

    MyUtopia - Go here to read about the Berg book. Unfortunately, it was a disappointment, too. :(

    Literary Feline - I usually quit when I can't get interested, but for some reason I stuck it out with this one. I can't think of a single book that I've quit on that I've tried again at a later date. Too many books....

    Andi - Yep, that's me. A fickle reader. Thank goodness for those thrillers, though. I'm completely engrossed in Harlen Coben's latest. Great brain candy! I should just splurge this summer and read nothing but mysteries, thrillers and romances.

  9. Timing really is everything with books, I believe. Movies can be that way as well.

  10. I had trouble concentrating during planting season, too, although it was mostly because I spent all day outside with the camera, this time! I'm sorry you didn't enjoy this one. As you know, it's on my pile. I think I'll put it off till fall, though. I need light reading, right now. My brain is on overload with all the bad things happening. :)

  11. Carl - I just wish I had the patience (or determination) to go back to a book that I didn't enjoy and try again. Unfortunately, I hate to waste the time if I already have a negative feeling about a book.

    Interesting. I've never thought about this happening with a movie, but I think you're absolutely right!

    Nancy - I know what you mean about needing lighter reads right now. Some summer romances and thrillers might be just the ticket for both of us this summer! Hang in there.

  12. LOL, Les, I totally loved your explanation for not having enjoyed the book as much as you expected to and I completely is that darned month of May! ;)

    Seriously though, I am so sorry you it wasn't a good read for can happen. You were a good sport to finish it though!

  13. Anonymous4:27 PM

    I've had a copy of this since Christmas but haven't gotten around to reading it yet. Since I partly grew up in NS, I'm interested to see how she portrays it. Sorry it was disappointing for you.

  14. Lotus - Thank you again for sharing the book with me. I wish I had enjoyed it as much as you. I've passed it on to Booklogged and I'm sure she'll enjoy it since she's vacationing in Nova Scotia this summer.

    Lesley - I suspect you'll enjoy it. I really do think it was a timing issue for me.


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