Monday, February 25, 2013

Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy and Hard Times by Jennifer Worth — Audiobook Review

Recorded by HighBridge Company
Narrated by Nicola Barber
Length: 12 Hours 2 Minutes


At only 22, Jennifer Worth has decided to become a midwife in postwar London, specifically in the slums of the East End. When she arrives at the convent that will be both her home and her workplace, she meets the eclectic bunch of nuns and trained nurses that will come to be a second family to her as she begins plying her craft to the poor and underprivileged women of the city. Riding out on her bicycle to labors both just beginning and already in progress, Jennifer tells the tales of the remarkable women and babies who show such a zest for life, that she is sometime taken aback. Life in the slums is dirty and most of the women that
Worth sees are badly in need of other types of assistance as well. Each birth she attends is rare, special and beautiful, but there is at times heartbreaking sadness that accompanies her deliveries. From the tiny baby that is so premature that she must take milk wrung one drop at a time out of a towel, to the reproductive health clinic that she must sometimes manage, Jennifer sees it all with newfound awe and sometimes even with amusement. Some of the tasks that she is asked to cope with are gruesome and some are bittersweet, but as she learns to navigate her way on bicycle across the city, in any weather or condition, Jennifer becomes a nurse and midwife of such skill that she sometimes even surprises herself. Interspersed with her birthing tales are the tales of the nuns whom she lives and works with—nuns who range from sly and spirited to diffident and easily offended, Jennifer comes to know and love them all. It is a solid and well told tale, crafting equal bits truth and reflection. Jennifer the midwife will linger in your mind long after the book is put away on its shelf.

When I discovered this audiobook at SIBA, I didn’t know that there was a planned PBS series already underway, and I took that as a good sign. I love it when books become television shows, and know that PBS has a fantastic reputation—just look at Downton Abbey. I was very pleased with this audiobook from start to finish, and thought that Nicola Barber totally embodied Jennifer Worth in this reflective set of tales. Her British accent was flawless and spirited, and she had no trouble in capturing the awe of bringing struggling babes into the world, and also in the jovial way that she captures the voices of the nuns. I liked her delivery, for she was able to handle the soft and tender moments with care, and also the less swanky side of life in the slums. You could hear her voice, gripped with empathy and silent understanding of these women in the way she spoke her tales, and by the time it was all over, I felt very close to both the narrator and the author.

Despite her choice of profession, Jennifer is not a stodgy and overserious woman, and in fact, she struggles with the choice of living in  St. Raymond Nonnatus house when she first arrives on the scene. She has no particular religious calling, but the fact that the nuns of Nonnatus house are so well regarded in the community for their successful birthing methods, and the fact that Jennifer herself feels somehow called to be there, leads her right into the ruckus that will one day become second nature to her. Jennifer herself was very capable, even in her first deliveries, and she had a sound mind that enabled her to cope with the many sadnesses that life in the slums would expose her to. She was bold enough to know when a woman was in travail, and when it became dangerous, and she was sure in her ways with the women of the town. Make no mistake, it was not only the births and postnatal care that she had to be responsible for, but also for the sexual health clinic in a disorderly corner of London. Many times the things she saw were unappetizing, and sometimes even even the stolid Jennifer was shaken.

The many stories that she tells about the births that she presided over were the icing on the cake for me. I’ve already admitted to loving midwife stories, but the truths and solidity behind every aspect of the births that she attends were totally absorbing to me. Many of the medical advancements that we now take for granted had not been invented yet, and still, not many of her mothers fared badly at all. Particularly striking was the tale of the immigrant mother who was married to an Englishman and spoke no English, while bearing him 24 children. It’s impossible to even contemplate that number, but what Jennifer insists is an error on her record is indeed fact, and giving birth to her 24th child, Jennifer is present and sees a rapturous love for both the new baby and all her other children from a mother who speaks not a word of English.

Some of the stories were funny, some unusual, and some very sad as well. Both babies and mothers were lost, but funnily enough, not as many as you would expect, for the training and expertise of the Nonnatus house nuns was impeccable and went beyond the standard of care that we have even today. Mothers were visited at their homes for home births, unless it became perilous for them to do so. Only then were they removed to the hospital. Each mother had two visits a day from a traveling nurse as their day approached, and they were to stay abed for two weeks after delivery. This is virtually unheard of nowadays, when the typical delivery and hospital stay is about three days, after which the mother is sent home to fend for herself, with no one looking in. The nuns of Nonnatus house were different in that they did continue to look in, again, twice a day. They must make sure the child and mother were healthy, the child was suckling, and all things in between. It was dedication of the highest order, and it was hard not to be impressed with the level of care.

The other aspect of this winning book was the nuns themselves. They ran the gamut, personality wise, and flew in the face of what a nun should look like or be. They were ever compassionate and understanding, but this didn’t mean that they weren’t above petty rivalries in the abbey, or didn’t have difficulty trying to keep their own intentions honestly or without struggle. As Jennifer gets to know each nun very closely, she finds that living among the sisters is just like living among literal sisters, and that despite their higher calling from God, some could be petty while still being loving and selfless. As she breaks through the walls of their emotional interiors, she discovers that they are all very human women who have had lives of struggle and who all come from very different walks of life. It is these nuns who, without knowing it, help Jennifer to find her own way to God, and find her place among them as well.

This was a fantastic listen for me, and it only took me a couple of days to finish it. It’s a must read for all those who love midwifery or those who would like to get a picture of what it was like to be a British woman in the 1940s. It was not a book that one could read totally dry-eyed, either with tears or with laughter, and because of the abundance of emotion instilled in Jennifer’s words, it was a book that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. Both the emotional and physical practicalities were given great regard, and despite the differences that readers will see cross culturally and cross generationally, it is a book to be marvelled at. I can’t wait to see the series that PBS crafted from this wonderful specimen of literature.

24 comments:

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Hah, I bet you've read every midwifery book there is!

JaneGS said...

I love the PBS series and am eagerly looking forward to the broadcast of season 2 at the end of the month. I've been wondering whether I should read the book as well, and you've convinced me. You mentioned the book as covering all that I love about the series--the grit and hardiness of the women and their babies, the lives of the nuns and their disparate personalities, the personal growth of Jenny. I also like midwife stories and reading about this era helps me really understand the world into which I was born.

Mary (Bookfan) said...

I enjoyed the first season on PBS so I can imagine the book is very good. Something I didn't know before watching is that there are non-Catholic nuns! I loved their portrayal on screen.

Suko said...

Wow--wonderful review as always! I love the ideas you present here, including the human side of nuns, and the joy and challenges of midwifery. I will look for this book/audiobook/series.

Andi said...

You know I'll be getting hold of this one at some point. :)

Meg @ write meg! said...

How fun to see this review today -- I watched several episodes of "Call the Midwife" on Saturday! I had no idea it was a book first, though I really shouldn't be surprised. It sounds like such an interesting, educational read, and I think I'll have to pop over to the library to see if I can find the audio myself!

bermudaonion said...

That does seem like the perfect book for you, but I suspect I would enjoy it as well. It sounds fascinating.

jennysbooks said...

I don't know how this escaped my notice, but I had no idea she was living in a convent while doing this. That makes me want to read it way, way more than anything else I've read about it. There is something about a whole bunch of people living in a very rarefied environment that is ceaselessly fascinating to me. Boarding school books too.

Brooke said...

I'm dying to see the PBS mini-series as well. Have heard fantastic things!

Beth F said...

Boy that does sound good. I'm going to have to try to find time to read it before the PBS show airs.

Lisa said...

I've seen this one around but wasn't sure if it might be too much of a show tie-in and not enough of a book on its own. Sounds like you enjoyed it and it has a lot of interesting stories.

Audra said...

Waaaaaaaaaaaant wantwantwantwant. I too didn't realize there was a convent/nun aspect -- I love nuns! So I must get this -- thanks for reminding me this was a book first!

Booklogged said...

I've watched the PBS series but didn't realize it was a book. It probably says in the opening credits which I usually fast-forwarded. I thoroughly enjoyed the show and I'm sure I'd like the book.

Very nice review, Zibilee.

Athira said...

This one sounds amazing and heartfelt! I will have to look for it. I've been considering what to listen to next and this one sounds wonderful. Great review!

Jennifer @ Mrs Q Book Addict said...

This one is new to me, but it sounds fantastic! I'll be adding it to my wishlist.

Holly (2 Kids and Tired) said...

Awesome, awesome review. Midwifery fascinates me and I've wanted to read this one.

Darlene said...

I really want to read this book and watch the TV series! You know how much I like anything on midwives. This is a must read for me.

Aarti said...

Ooh, I'm so thrilled that the audio version of this book is good! I'll definitely try to find it. I think I'd really enjoy it. I found the PBS show a bit too saccharine, but hopefully she's a bit more realistic in the book!

Amy said...

yay! I loved this book :) I like the series, but I don't think anything will ever compare to the book for me.

nomadreader said...

I really enjoyed this miniseries on PBS and I'm glad to hear it was great on audio too!

Amy Meyer said...

This book sounds amazing and a must-read for me. I don't know a lot about midwifery and would love to know more. But what draws me to this, aside from the main character who, at 22, sounds like an amazing young woman (I love the fact that she's not stodgy and serious or all religious) and the British setting (I cannot seem to get enough!), is the stories of the women and their babies, many of which sound inspiring and full of hope. Of course, there are sad ones, as well, but the one mom you specified,for instance, having her 24th child, married to an Englishman but speaks no english and yet her love for her new baby was clear as was her love for her other 23 children. Remarkable and so telling.

I missed the first season of this series on PBS, I don't know how except I was wrapped up in DA, maybe? but I was thrilled to find out about and more excited when I saw you'd reviewed a book about it. And now I know it's well worth reading and watching. I taped a Midwife holiday special on PBS the other night but haven't watched it yet. Did you see it?

As usual I've talked too much but your reviews do that to me! Thank you for another great one, Heather!

Nicole (Linus's Blanket) said...

I read this when it first came and a few years back, I think this may have been before the show was planned. Is any case it was called The Midwife and I loved it. She had that perfect no-nonsense voice in the book, and the things she observed and how she reacted (with honesty!) was very touching. If I hadn't read it all ready, I would definitely want to pick it up.

Buried In Print said...

I'm really looking forward to this series/book as well: thanks for reminding me to add it to the queue!

Jenny said...

I had no idea this was a book! I saw the dvd of the series at Best Buy one day and added THAT to my list, LOL. Sounds fascinating!

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