Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Book Review: The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich

The Midwife of Venice
by Roberta Rich
Ebury Press
Available in ebook and paperback
4 Stars


At midnight, the dogs, cats, and rats rule Venice. The Ponte di Ghetto Nuovo, the bridge that leads to the ghetto, trembles under the weight of sacks of rotting vegetables, rancid fat, and vermin. Seeping refuse on the streets renders the pavement slick and the walking treacherous.

It was on such a night that the men came for Hannah.

Hannah Levi is famed throughout Venice for her skills as a midwife but, as a Jew, the law forbids her from attending a Christian woman.

However, when the Conte appears at her door in the dead of night, Hannah's compassion is sorely tested. And with the handsome reward he is offering, she could ransom back her husband, currently imprisoned on the island of Malta.

But if she fails in her endeavours to save mother and child, will she be able to save herself, let alone her husband?


Hannah Levi is a Jewish midwife living in the Jewish ghetto in Venice, in a city where it is illegal for Jewish midwife or doctor to treat Christians. One night, a nobleman comes to Hannah as his last hope for his pregnant wife. None of their other children survived and he thinks this is his last chance for an heir. But his wife has been in labour for days and still no sign of the child being born.

Hannah reluctantly agrees to help, despite the law and her rabbi forbidding her to do it. She will help the conte's wife, but for a price: two hundred ducats. Her husband has been taken as a slave on Malta by the Knights of St. John, and Hannah wants the money to pay his ransom. There's also the worry that Hannah might be taken for a witch, with the implements she uses to assist at births, her 'birthing spoons', I suppose they might have been early forceps?

I have to say if you are pregnant for the first time, then this is not the book for you. The description of the birth that Hannah attends is not for the faint of heart, with everything in explicit detail and it might worry some.

The story alternates between Hannah's story in Venice and that of her husband, Issac in Malta and both are varied an interesting. 16th Century Venice and Malta come vividly to live. Having been to both places, it was interesting to compare how they might have looked in those times as they do now, with some things remaining the same, such as the Grand Canal and the Doge's Palace for example.

The plot can be mostly described as a bit contrived in places (kidnapping, blackmail, disguises, murder, the plague) but it was a fun and interesting read if you can suspend your disbelief for a while. Both Hannah and Issac are sympathetic characters and you want to cheer them on. It's a tale that's a bit on the fantastical side and sometimes you wonder if the author is parodying some of the more sombre historical novels, but it doesn't quite have that tongue-in-cheek feel.

The chapters are short, easily read and most have a cliffhanger making you want to read on. I finished the book in a couple of days and despite having murder, slavery, and more things than you ever wanted to know about 16th Century midwife practices, it was a fun read and very enjoyable.

Reviewed by Annette Gisby

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