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Pickle Me This

March 15, 2007

The Birth House by Ami McKay

All right, so I am the very last one to get on The Birth House train, but even still it wasn’t what I expected it to be. Which isn’t surprising, the novel is not quite what it seems to be. CanLit written by a (transplanted) American. Nova Scotia regionalism with the feel of a book by Fannie Flagg or the Ya Ya Sisterhood series. “A novel” it is proclaimed to be, but then after all it is a “literary scrapbook”. There is something truly original at work in this book, and thus classification is difficult. What Ami McKay has set out to do, she does very well, and this is a remarkable debut from a talented writer.

The plot seems sort of secondary to all the “stuff” within the book, which would matter in most novels, but then the stuff here is so good. McKay uses historical fact, local lore and a dash of magic to render a catalogue of midwifery– not so different from “The Willow Book” which Dora Rare, the midwife in the novel, consults herself. McKay’s novel is constructed from Dora’s journal entries, letters, clippings and advertisements. As a result of this structure, character development can be stunted in places, but then the characters as “types” seem to conform to these as stories a woman might tell over her back fence. A very authentic sense of “this was how it was” without affection.

McKay creates this sense of simplicity, however, whilst employing prose not short of exquisite. Nothing is clumsy and not a line rings untrue. Anyone who composes the line “But I’m so far from home and everything I know that even my prayers feel like sinning” is well on the road to mastery.

And speaking of sinning, McKay doesn’t shy away from the sordid, the brutal, or the brutally honest. Women’s sxual health is provocatively examined throughout, and no punches are pulled, and yet still there manages to be a spirit of lightness. Similarly does the novel treat motherhood and mothering, and womanhood in general. As Dora Rare struggles personally and professionally with restrictions on her freedom and the pressure to conform to societal expectations, the reader becomes her champion and when Dora triumphs– well, her triumphs are so sweet.

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