Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Review: The Midwife by Jennifer Worth

book 5 of 10 for the Orbis Terrarum 2009 Challenge
genre: non-fiction, memoir
rating: 4/5

Having given birth with the support of a midwife three times, when I heard about this one, I knew I had to make time to read it. The Midwife is the memoir of Jennifer Worth (“Jenny”) and her experiences in the East End Slums of post-war London. I think three things come together to make this a very interesting book.

First, the voice of Jenny. She is candid and real - her storytelling doesn't sugar-coat her experiences or her mistakes. She never pretends that the East End was anything other than what it was: a hard place to live where people still found things worth living for. She shares her prejudices with us and shows us how they crumbled as she became more intimate with the people she cared for, both as a midwife and as a nurse. Life in the convent, its routines and relationships - Jenny relates these things with an unaffected and honest candor. Every once and a while the narrative felt a bit jumpy (moving between time periods, etc.), but because I was interested wherever she took me, it didn't bother me.

The second thing is that the time and place is so narrow - we get such an intimate slice of a group of people, their trappings and failures and the things that make them tick. Some of their vices are described in uncomfortable detail and you can imagine how hopeless and degrading life could be. She teaches us to appreciate "Cockneys" and there is even an appendix so we can read Cockney and understand what they are saying :) As much as this book is about being a midwife, I also think it stands well as a cultural study of a group of people that no longer exist in the same sense.

The third thing is the art of midwifery itself and her journey as a midwife. I caught myself smiling while reading some chapters, there is so much joy - and other chapters brought me to tears and had me biting my lip with worry. She was in the thick of the struggle between life and death that all mothers experience as they bring a new one into the world. And I think there is a nice balance between medical information and the more extensive personal stories that make Jenny's neighborhood vibrant, full of characters and their histories. She never pretends that it was easy or glamorous work, and sometimes the conditions she worked in were downright disgusting. I kept having the thought: this was REAL. It was her LIFE. Women gave BIRTH this way, lived this way - medical science was so different and I think this memoir gives a fascinating perspective of a way of life that is no longer, as well as a flavor for the satisfaction that comes from working with pregnant women.

It's not lyrical or dreamy - it's a down-in-the-gutters look at an ages old profession. I loved it.

12 comments:

bermudaonion said...

Wow! Sounds like a fascinating book.

Nicole said...

I'll be reading this just as soon as I finish up my current read and I am really looking forward to it Glad that you enjoyed it and thanks for the great rebiew.

Booknut said...

Wow, I was already really looking forward to this read, but now I can hardly wait until I can get my hands on a copy. Thanks for another wonderful review.

morninglight mama said...

I'm putting it on my shelfari list right now. That reminds me too to look for a fiction title that someone had told me about a while ago, and I think the word midwife was also in the title. Thanks for the reminder and the great review!

Tricia said...

I can't wait to read this one. I've got it on my shelf waiting for me. I'm glad you liked it!

Jeanette said...

Thanks for the review. This book sounds like one I would really enjoy.

Richard said...

Corinne, nice review! I'm glad people seem to be tackling a little more nonfiction so far in this year's OT Challenge.

Trish said...

Hey Corinne, I left you a little award here.

Beth F said...

Super review! Sounds really good.

claire said...

This sounds like a good read. And I found you through the Orbis Terrarum Challenge. Your blog is wonderful. I'll be visiting..

Pam said...

Thanks for this review - I've been a life long supporter of midwives and worked as a spiritual midwife (doula, attendant) for many years while raising my two boys.

I'm excited to check this book out and revisit the wonderful memories I have being invited to share one of the most powerful transformational experiences women may ever have in their lifetime...

Minnie Cooper said...

I read a few chapters of this book a couple of weeks ago and would love to read more. Fascinating.
My parents immigrated to London in the mid 1950s and Worth describes the London they would have arrived in. I loved the story of Len and Conchita Warren.

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