Book Review – The Birth House by Ami McKay

“Why would you read a book like that right now?” was Peter’s reaction when I told him I’d just finished reading a novel about birth and midwives in the early 20th century.

“I’m not sure,” I had to admit. “But it wasn’t scary.”

Partly, I think, I read The Birth House (Vintage Canada, 2007) now precisely because I am pregnant. Because that inevitable birth is getting closer and closer. Certainly, it coloured my reading of the novel.

We meet Dora Rare in her late teens. She has six brothers and is as rare as her name – the first daughter of the Rare family in three generations. Her family lives in Scots Bay, a small village on the coast of Nova Scotia. They are not wealthy but there is a good deal of affection among them. However, Dora’s father, while not exactly cruel, has trouble understanding his only daughter and bans her from the books she loves. Eventually, she is sent to live with Miss Babineau, the local midwife, sometimes said to be a witch. From Miss B, Dora learns the skills of midwifery and herbal healing. Talents used, but not always appreciated, by the rest of the villagers. Life has always been this way. When the local women have their children, they call on Miss B and they labour at home. She’s skilled and so is Dora and, while not every child or woman survives, it’s clear that Dora and Miss B do good work.

This is threatened by the arrival of Dr. Gilbert Thomas in the next town. Dr. Thomas has built a maternity house where women can go to deliver their babies. He claims to provide pain-free labours. (Pain-free may be relative but he does provide consciousness-free deliveries.) Suddenly, where women give birth becomes a source of tension in the community – often a battle between what women want and what the men around them think is best for them. (A common theme throughout Dora’s life.)

My baby will be born in a hospital, delivered by a doctor. And so while I completely support midwives and the traditions they often represent, I was disappointed by what felt like a very one-sided view of modern birthing.

The problem is that the doctor is such a buffoon. There’s nothing appealing about him or his maternity centre. There’s nothing to suggest any reasonable woman would ever desire him as a doctor (and the women who do support him in the novel are little more than stereotypes) or want to have a child in his presence. I would have preferred to see some nuance, some more authentic tension between the old and new styles of giving birth. A scenario, perhaps, where a doctor is able to perform where the midwife can’t. Maybe a c-section, or the care of a premature infant. (A chapter where Dora is in Halifax following the 1917 explosion, where dozens of women are sent into labour by the shock, would have been perfect for this.) It could even have been a different doctor so as to leave Dr. Thomas as a fool while still presenting some of the benefits of modern medicine.

Dora deserves a better antagonist. And McKay is clearly capable of greater nuance and layers. She can write fascinating, sympathetic and detailed characters so it’s disappointing when she doesn’t. The character of Archer Bigelow, for example, Dora’s sometimes love, demonstrates that McKay can create a character that we love, then hate, and then want to love.

As I said, my reading of the novel is coloured by the fact of my current pregnancy. Ironically, I feel that the care I currently receive – and that is the norm in Canada now – is much closer to the portrayal of midwifery than medicine in the novel. I’m encouraged to listen to my body, intervention is kept at a minimum and I will (hopefully) be conscious during my child’s birth. I believe my doctor respects me (and yes, I have a male doctor).

But I also got a flu shot. I have no desire to give birth in my own home. And if I require pain killers or a c-section, so be it. My baby today has a higher chance of survival than at any other point in history.

By not giving her a more worthy opponent, McKay in fact does a disservice to her protagonist. Dora is touch and fascinating, with just the right amount of vulnerability. And in the end, her character and her story make the book worth reading. Just maybe not while heavily pregnant.

What I Read 2014 – A Year in Review

In 2013, I read 32 books. While nothing to sneeze at, I felt the number was kind of low so I resolved to read more books in 2014. I’m pleased to report that I accomplished this goal and, in fact, more than doubled the number of books I read. With great difficulty, I have attempted to order them by my own preference, beginning with the books I loved the most. So here we go, everything I read in 2014:

1. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

2.The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

3. Reaching for the Invisible God by Philip Yancey

4. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

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5. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

6. The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels

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7. The Confabulist by Steven Galloway

8. The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

9. Crow Lake by Mary Lawson

10. Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill

11. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

12. All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

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13. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

14. The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

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15. A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans

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16.We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

17. The Dinner by Herman Koch

18. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

19. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

20. Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay

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21. Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler

22. February by Lisa Moore

23. Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese

24. Across the River and into the Trees by Ernest Hemingway

25. Indian Killer by Sherman Alexie

26. Tell the Wolves I’m Home – Carol Rifka Brunt

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27. Sweetland by Michael Crummey

28. Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon

29. Us Conductors by Sean Michaels

30. Man by Kim Thuy

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31. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

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32. Harvest by Jim Crace

33. Looking for Alaska by John Green

34. I am the Messenger by Markus Zusak

35. The Sweet Girl by Annabel Lyon

36. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

37. Hellgoing by Lynn Coady

38. The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

39. The Devil on Her Tongue by Linda Holeman

40. The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill

41. 419 by Will Ferguson

42. Juliet was a Surprise by Bill Gaston

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43. Floating Like the Dead by Yasuko Thanh

44. The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith

44. Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeymi

45. The World by Bill Gaston

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46. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

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47. Everything in this Country Must by Colum McCann

48. The Sad Truth About Happiness by Anne Giardini

49. The Eliot Girls by Krista Bridge

50. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

51. Seven Good Reasons not to be Good by John Gould

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52. By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart

53. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

54. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

55. The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

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56. I Remember Nothing by Nora Ephron

57. Stars Between the Sun and Moon by Lucia Jang & Susan McClelland

58. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

59. Summer Crossing by Truman Capote

60. Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris

61. Open by Lisa Moore

62. Writing with Grace by Judy McFarlane

63. No Relation by Terry Fallis

64. Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney

65. Projection by Priscila Uppal

66. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

67. Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

68. Perfect by Rachel Joyce

69. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabriele Zevin

70. Little Children by Tom Perotta

71. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

72. If I Stay by Gayle Forman

73. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

74. Candide by Voltaire

75. Butterflies in November by Audur Ava Olafsdottir

76. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

77. Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

78. The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

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Re-Read this Year: The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis

So there you have it. 78 new titles read this year. My best month for reading was January (11 books) and my worst was August (4 books). This makes sense when you take into account the indoor weather of January and the fact that in August I was dealing with morning sickness and started a new job.

And just for fun, let’s lay down some stats! (Who doesn’t love stats?)

  • 8% of the books I read were either short stories or young adult novels. (None were both at once. Have there been many short story collections for teens in recent years?)
  • 9% were translations. These varied from Spanish to Icelandic but French seemed to dominate. Perhaps because it’s the second official language of my country.
  • 10% were non-fiction. I hope to up this percentage in 2015. While I definitely prefer fiction, I hope to read more theological writing in the new year.
  • 36% were Canadian. I’m happy with that percentage. I do make an effort to read Canadian writing but I also don’t want to ignore fantastic writing from around the world.
  • I reviewed 43% of the books I read on this blog. Again, I’d like to do better at this in 2015. I think I started out very well, meeting my goal of a weekly book review but it sputtered in the summer and has been rather sporadic since.
  • 47% of the books I read this year were written by men. 53% were written by women. Through no effort on my part, those numbers are pretty even and that makes me happy.

So what were the best books you read in 2014? What do I need to add to my list for 2015?