Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Midwives, Chris Bohjalian

MidwivesThroughout the long summer before my mother's trial began, and then during those crisp days in the fall when her life was paraded publicly before the county - her character lynched, her wisdom impugned - I overheard much more than my parents realized, and I understood more than they would have liked.

"The time is 1981, and Sibyl Danforth has been a dedicated midwife in the rural community of Reddington, Vermont, for fifteen years. But one treacherous winter night, in a house isolated by icy roads and failed telephone lines, Sibyl takes desperate measures to save a baby's life. She performs an emergency Caesarean section on its mother, who appears to have died in labor. But what if—as Sibyl's assistant later charges—the patient wasn't already dead, and it was Sibyl who inadvertently killed her? As recounted by Sibyl's precocious fourteen-year-old daughter, Connie, the ensuing trial bears the earmarks of a witch hunt except for the fact that all its participants are acting from the highest motives—and the defendant increasingly appears to be guilty. As Sibyl Danforth faces the antagonism of the law, the hostility of traditional doctors, and the accusations of her own conscience, Midwives engages, moves, and transfixes us as only the very best novels ever do."

Midwives was quite disturbing and very graphic, but I nevertheless enjoyed the novel, despite the fact that it sometimes had an overabundance of annoying detail. The book was never boring, although I certainly didn't race through it. It was slow and methodical, building up to the big event that will change all of the characters' lives forever. In this case, the event isn't some big mystery: it's in the book summary, after all, and Connie tells what it is before she actually gets to it in the narration. There's just a lot of background information to fill in before we get there. Overall, that style of constant heavy foreshadowing and looking back is kind of annoying, especially when as in this case the narrator is now much, much older. Still, it sometimes works, and it was okay here. I certainly wouldn't want every book I read to have a narration like the one in Midwives, and it did get annoying with all the repetition along the lines of "If we had known this..."/"We should have realized this..."

Midwives has really interesting, well-rounded, and complex characters, foremost among them being Sybil Danforth. She's not actually that sympathetic in terms of who she is and her lifestyle, but it is pretty clear that she genuinely thought the woman was dead and was just acting in the way she thought best. Of course, that's still enough for a manslaughter charge, and therein lies the dilemma. What it comes down to is whether Charlotte was actually dead or not when the cesarean section was performed. We do know, however, that Sibyl didn't take the usual procedures for making sure that she was dead. Or rather, she says she did, but while the two witnesses were out of the room.

I said the book was never boring, but there were times when it dragged a bit. I remained, however, interested, and enjoyed Connie's descriptions of the people around her and her reflections about her life before and after the trial. The book is rather sensational, what with all the "our lives were never the same" kind of talk, and it was also as I mentioned earlier very graphic. It is, after all about midwives and what they do, so be prepared for that. I was a bit surprised, and not altogether happy at the vivid descriptions; I didn't really need to know a lot of it.

Midwives has extensive trial scenes, which I really enjoy reading in To Kill a Mockingbird and other novels. It's great to read about lawyers doing their work, cross-examining and casting doubt upon testimony even if they don't always win. I also think the nature of these scenes makes them very suspenseful, because who knows which side will win. Although in this case you think you do know, they were still absorbing scenes, and I really liked the lawyer for Sibyl. He's very effective.

Overall, I enjoyed Midwives, although I certainly didn't love it. There were sections that dragged a bit, but it was an interesting and disturbing novel, with many murky areas in terms of who's right and who's wrong.

372 pages.

Rating: ****

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