Across the landscape of his career, author Chris Bohjalian has written novels about a murderer’s plight against a privileged family in World War II Italy, about a young social worker driven into Jazz Age Long Island by a homeless man’s photographs, of an American woman’s love for an Armenian man in early-twentieth century Syria, and more. In his contemporary classic, Midwives, he tells the unforgettable story of midwife Sibyl Danforth and a home birth gone tragically wrong. Narrated by Sibyl’s fourteen year-old daughter Connie, Midwives is a chilling and evocative account of what one woman will endure for the sake of protecting her name and standing by her choices. When Sibyl Danforth experienced challenges in the delivery of a client’s child, she would have called the hospital and sent for an emergency rescue squad. But in a small Vermont town in the throes of a winter storm, help is an impossible distance away and Sibyl finds herself the only hope of a helpless, unborn child. After the mother has expired, Sibyl takes matters into her own hands and performs an emergency cesarean section to save the child. But what if, as the prosecutors of her court case are determined to prove, the mother had still be alive when Sibyl cut the baby from her?
With the sort of harsh but deeply emotive freedom that makes his work so singularly compelling, Bohjalian unravels the story of Sibyl’s journey to clear herself of being labeled a murderer. Is she suffering vulgar mistreatment at the hands of others, or did she truly make an atrocious mistake? There’s something quiet and vulnerable about Sibyl as a character, which makes her no less vivid, but where the novel really excels in its character depiction is in narrator Connie. In Connie we see a strong, determined young woman represented with the same clarity and depth as many of Bohjalian’s other memorable characters, whereas Sibyl sometimes seems to be hiding behind a smokescreen (a necessity, I think, if we readers are to form our own judgments of Sibyl’s story).
Much like The Double Bind, Midwives plays very steadily on Bohjalian’s knack for psychological mischief; through a fairly quiet and unhurried story he seems to know how to guide his reader into a false sense of security before sweeping revelations come in to knock us off our feet. Also as with The Double Bind, I’m left to wonder exactly how he manages to know what to put in and what to leave out. For me, Midwives worked really well from beginning to end; it had me riveted, yet never able to guess exactly how the ending would play out – and then thrown for a few final loops just when I thought I couldn’t be caught by surprise.
Additionally, the level of research that Bohjalian undertook to make Midwives such an engrossing novel is quite fascinating. Not only does he explore the details of midwifery in 1980s America with astonishing acuity, but the novel’s two acts documenting the subsequent manslaughter trial include some aggressively researched and impressive court room drama. This is an interesting novel in its many assets and its many areas of strength: once again the narrative carries off of the pages to envelope the reader in the setting, and young Connie – thirty at the time of her narrative, but fourteen in her memories – is as vividly imagined as the midwife at the center of the plot. Bohjlaian has proven himself as a masterful storyteller and as particularly adept at creating multi-faceted, deeply intellectual drama, but Midwives delves also into an element of the profoundly human, glimpsing the vulnerabilities of human nature and exploring the emotional ways in which we deal with those imperfections. At times challenging, often raw in its uninhibited exploration of truth, Midwives relays much heart and determination even amid the most devastating of tragedies.
Midwives was my August pick for the TBR Pile Challenge, and my fourth overall Chris Bohjalian novel. (I’ve also reviewed The Sandcastle Girls, The Double Bind, and The Light in the Ruins.) I’ve enjoyed each of his stories so much, and it consistently impresses me how well he writes stories with so much diversity to them; I can’t think of many other authors who write about such vastly different times, places, topics, and people – and make them all seem realistic to boot!
Author: Chris Bohjalian
Genre: literary fiction, mystery
Publisher: Vintage (paperback)
Release date: November 8, 1998 (April 1997, original)
Source: personal collection
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