Saturday, 1 January 2011

Review: Midwives by Chris Bohjalian

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  • Genre: General Fiction
  • Published: 1998
  • Pages: 372


Sibyl Danforth is a lay midwife from Vermont who assists women to have home births. One night, she is with a birthing mother when everything goes wrong and the woman dies. Sibyl cuts her open to save the life of the child… But the question remains: had she really died and did Sibyl Danforth actually kill her?

I read this book for Crazy Book Swap and my partner is Wallace from Unputadownables who hosts it. She sent me Midwives by Chris Bohjalian and I must admit, though I thought it did look interesting, I didn’t expect to enjoy it quite so much as I did.

It is a book I’d have otherwise overlooked, judging it by the title to be some gooey story about babies. I guess this should teach me not to be so easily prejudiced about a book before really looking at it. When I read the description at the back it sounded more interesting, but I still felt quite reserved about reading it to start with. I have a firm idea about what books are ‘my type of books’ and what isn’t and sometimes this barrier can be hard to beat down. Do I jump into an unknown area without really knowing where I’ll land? I tend to start books thinking I’ll enjoy them then the other way around. This wouldn’t quite be the first time I have been surprised.

Bohjalian, rather then writing it from Sibyl’s perspective, told the story from the first person narrative of her daughter Connie, who was only a child at the time it took place. It is written in the style of a memoir and so the tone is generally reflective and slow paced. At first I thought that this wouldn’t work – it would lose the imperative of the story and make it too passive. Much of the information would have to be second hand because at the time Connie was a teenager and had not been with her mother at the time of the incident, among other things. Yet this wasn’t the case and I found myself gripped throughout, barely able to put the book down sometimes.

It is a story about the ties between a mother and her children. It is as much – if not more – Connie’s own story about growing up alongside her mother’s court case and the effects it has on her own family.

Sibyl has an almost spiritual calling to be a midwife and in the sixties she had been a hippy – no doubt an influence on her beliefs. She is a lay-midwife – something which we don’t have in the UK and I had to look it up. Lay midwives are represented as pretty much all being hippies, or ex-hippies wearing peasant skirts with an inate distrust of establishments and formal education when it comes to midwifery. This seems to me a bit of a negative stereotype. Yet, I didn’t feel as if Bohjalian wanted to criticise lay-midwives or natural births.

Sibyl prefers natural home births, rather then invasive medicalised hospital births ruled by male doctors and their instruments. I think Bohjalian treats the question of natural vs. medical quite fairly – including arguments for both sides.  It does make you question the ideals between having a home birth and a hospitalised one. I think since reading this, I am actually feeling that a natural, home birth would be more preferable to having a load of strangers poking and prodding certain parts of me and having to put up with horrible hospital food.

The story is set during the eighties and I wonder how much people’s attitudes have changed today? I get the feeling that the medical community are more open to the idea of natural births now and more options are available. I could be wrong of course.

Bohjalian is a very good writer. He is able to slowly and subtly unwrap the story in a way that kept me turning the pages to find out what happened. Despite this, it is a rather strange story. The pace is so slow and the characters feel very distant and I wasn’t able to really connect with any of them. There did not seem to be much of a story and yet there wasn’t really a boring page in the whole book. It kept me guessing right up to the very end.

It is certainly a book that will make you want to question and to think about what happens. I couldn’t help but feel completely involved in the story as if I was an outsider looking in and unable to turn my face away. I think that opinions might vary between people, perhaps depending on whether you have children or a strong desire to have one. On a personal level I feel more objective as I have no children and not entirely sure how I’d feel about having one.

I’d like to thank Wallace for sending me this book, and apologise for writing this review so late. I started it a long time ago, but for some reason I just got stuck on writing anything at all.

I really enjoyed the book swap, it’s great receiving a book knowing you’re going to read because you agreed to it before you even knew what book you’re going to read. It’s the thrill of the unknown and the fact that perhaps otherwise, you’d never have read it. As I said at the beginning, this is a book I’d have most definitely have passed by. Now I think I would really like to read Skeletons at the Feast, knowing how good an author he is.


  1. This book has been sitting on my shelf for the longest time. I'm glad that it's a good read. I'll be looking forward to it.

  2. I think many of the attitudes vary around the globe and even in the West as well, for example, where I think medication while delivering a child is very normal in the US, it is exceptional in the Netherlands (as far as I know).

    This swap sounds like a fun idea :)

  3. So glad you ended up liking it!



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