Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Book Review: The Birth House

I've had this book by Ami McKay on my TBR list for such a long time. I love the cover art, but that isn't always indicative of the art within. Now I'm not saying this book doesn't have its good points; it does. The story itself, which takes place in the early 1900s in a tiny Nova Scotian village, is compelling. Dora Rare is an anomaly from birth: she is the first girl born in five generations of Rares. But anything unusual sets a person apart, and she is looked upon with suspicion. Eventually she becomes an apprentice to the midwife, Mrs. B., who, although essential to the village women, is also regarded suspiciously (i.e., they call her a witch).

The first half of the book flowed nicely. Dora is sweet, smart, and helpful. But then the book begins to lose its subtleties and become preachy with the advent of the Villain. Enter the Evil Doctor, who, with his clean hospital and medicines, seeks to destroy all the women in the village by insisting that they birth according to his new-fangled methods. Forceps, straps, ether, etc. McKay's goal seems, on one level, to show the arrogance of the professional medical community vs. traditional healing. But rather than doing this with the grace of Geraldine Brooks in Year of Wonders, for example, she thrusts it upon the reader.

(I feel that I must insert here that I'm all for midwifery and that my one birthing experience with a midwife was absolutely the most fabulous, but I also appreciate MDs, so there. I'm making a literary criticism, not a medical criticism.)

And I don't like fiction books that tell me how I'm supposed to feel. (I talked about this recently in my review of John Grisham's The Appeal.) I don't like things to be so stereotypical. Surprise me. Let me see something in a new way. Let me figure things out for myself.

The second half of the book tries to do way too much. We've got war, medicine vs. healing, feminism and a variety of women's issues, abusive marriages, and the influenza epidemic. Many stories are begun and not finished, their surfaces barely scratched. This is not not unusual, and I can even imagine how an author might feel: "I really want to get this story in, and introduce this character, and make this point..." but sometimes those things are better cut out and made into a new novel.

McKay's writing itself is very good. Her dialog is believable and her language flows nicely. My assessment: too much material for one book, and too didactic for my tastes.


Terri said...

Excellent review of Birth House. I read this last year and, while I mostly enjoyed it, there were some things about it that bugged me. I didn't spend much time pondering it, but you put your finger on it!

John Mutford said...

I agree with you with everything, especially with the lack of grace in pushing through certain issues. My review is here: