Friday, January 04, 2008

Reader's Diary #321- Ami McKay: The Birth House (FINISHED!!)

In 2003 my daughter was born with the aid of midwives in Rankin Inlet. They were godsends (and have become lifelong friends in the process). It was my first education into the world of midwifery and my wife and I are fully in support of the resurgence. It would stand to reason that I'd be drawn to Ami McKay's the birth house, which tells the story of a fictional midwife in early 1900s Nova Scotia.

What a colossal disappointment. Lately it seems that I've been drawn to a lot of stories that reveal the underside and complexities of small town life (in particular To Kill a Mockingbird and Dogville). At the beginning of the birth house it appeared that I'd be treated to another one of these tales:
"Men wagered their lives with the sea for the honour of these vessels."

"As the men bargained with the elements, the women tended to matters at

"When husbands, fathers and sons were kept out in the fog longer than was safe, the women stood at their windows, holding their lamps..."

The problem was McKay never really got beyond this stereotypical view of maritime life, whereas the aforementioned stories excelled by stripping away the layers. In a lot of ways the birth house reminded me of E. Annie Proulx's faulted presentation of Newfoundland.

One exception was protagonist, Dora Rare. Another annoyance: McKay's ridiculous names. Had this read like a fable perhaps she could have gotten away with such silliness, but anchoring the story in such real-life events as the Halifax explosion and the 1st World War prevented any surreal experience she may have been going for. The Rares haven't had a male born in 5 generations, which makes Dora even more rare- wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Then there's Experience Ketch who had to put up with a drunken, abusive husband for years- imagine all that she's experienced- you get it? Oh and let's not forget the name of the ship that captain Bigelow sailed to the West Indies, never again to return to his wife... the Fidelity. Where's a rim-shot when you really need one?

Such intrusions of McKay trying desperately to be funny merely distracted from the story. Another prime example: the vibrator incident. After a doctor prescribes...ahem...vibration therapy, Dora mail-orders a vibrator of her very own to avoid him. In her diary she writes, "With the arrival of this 'medical marvel,' I feel hopeful..." My issue- petty as it might seem- is those tiny little quotation marks around medical marvel. Sure, it could be argued that Dora was simply quoting from the magazine ad, but doesn't it seem like McKay is throwing it in to joke with us, the modern readers? As in, "Can you believe how silly things were back then?" Yechh. The rest of the novel just got more and more obvious that it was a 21st century author casting modern knowledge and values backwards and expecting me to believe it.

I could go on (predictable, sexist, etc), but I'm just so exhausted with it all.

This is my 7th book for the Canadian Book Challenge and was my Nova Scotia selection. So far I've covered Newfoundland and Labrador (Out of the Sea), Manitoba (the Time In Between), British Columbia (Love: A Book of Remembrances), Ontario (Uncommon Prayer), Nunavut (One Woman's Arctic), and Quebec (Harpoon of the Hunter).


Chrisbookarama said...

Oh no! I loved it, stereotypes and all.

Hmmm... Can we still be book friends? Um, ok. ;)

John Mutford said...

Umm, I guess so.

Oh, I could never stay mad at you.

Sure why not?


Susan said...

I haven't read the book, but your comments make me remember why I didn't buy the book - I picked it up to peruse in the bookstore, as I do before buying a book by an author I don't know......and I remember being dismayed by the part I was reading, that the chapter bit I read didn't seem worth the superlatives the book was receiving. I certainly wasn't grabbed by what I read enough to pick it up. Yet I felt comfortable buying La Suite Francaise for my mother and sister-in-law, unread by me, because the bit that I read, I saw, was out of this world. (My mother has since said that she has already started reading La Suite Francaise and has decided to savour it by reading it slowly, since it is written using grammar and language that is seldom used in fiction these days. She loves it.) I may give it a go through the library, but I know now my initial reaction was probably right. Thanks very much for your review! And it's a pity, because I really want Canadian books to do well. If you haven't tried, then I recommend Giles Blount, first book Forty Words for Sorrow, a mystery writer who makes me proud he is Canadian....

Anne Camille said...

I had an Advance copy of this book and my reactions were the same as yours. I couldn't believe what glowing praise I've read about this book. I wanted to throw it across the room several times. It held such promise, but was such a disappointment. Based on what I've read on other blogs, I think you & I are in the minority on this one, but I think you got it exactly right when you wrote that it is a "21st century author casting modern knowledge and values backwards and expecting me to believe it."

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Thanks for the warning. I shall run screaming if this is ever offered to me.

John Mutford said...

Susan: I've heard of Blunt's Black Fly Season but not the one you mentioned. I should really give him a shot. I read Suite Francaise last year and I remembered being even more intrigued with the author's life than the novel itself.

Cam: Yes, it's definitely hard to come across a negative review of this one. There, folks like you and I provide balance! Incidentally, I just visited your blog and saw the survey results from 2006 in which some of the responses listed Birth House as a favourite for that year.

Barbara: My copy was borrowed, otherwise you'd get it in the mail.

Bybee said...

I can't get past the cover...I'm convinced it's really a basketball.

John Mutford said...

Bybee: She is holding on to it like it's going to fall out any second, isn't she?

Imani said...

I love to read dissenting views on media favourites (provided that they aren't on books I liked ;)). I also avoided this one, probably because it sounded like pretty typical Can lit. and I don't have any patience for those unless the writing is out of this world.

Anonymous said...

Oh, it's a shame to read this, because I've heard such good things about it and was hoping it would be good. I'll cross my fingers and hope I like it anyway.

I second Susan's recommendation of Giles Blunt and Forty Words for Sorrow (I believed Black Fly Season is the third book in the series that began with FWfS.) I read it years ago and thought that it was really excellent; I remember liking the sequel when it came out, too.

John Mutford said...

Imani: I'd say it's typical of the stuff that gets wrongfully praised in Canada, yes.

Poodlerat: Maybe it'll ease your mind that my views seem to be in the minority. Maybe you'll still enjoy it.

Sarah at SmallWorld said...

What a great review! You said everything just so right. And yes: "The rest of the novel just got more and more obvious that it was a 21st century author casting modern knowledge and values backwards and expecting me to believe it."

John Mutford said...

Here's a friendlier review from Raidergirl.

John Mutford said...

Oi. I'm definitely of the minority opinion on this one. Here's another positive review from April.

Anonymous said...

Wow, we certainly have different opinions of this one. I quite liked it; was able to forgive Ami McKay the silly names and stereotypes in favour of the story. Sheeh, if I were to get upset about every stereotype I've read or heard, I'd be one very sad and disappointed Nova Scotian.

I rather enjoyed your review though, opposing views are cool; keeps things interesting!

The first book of the year and it ended up last on your list? Hope whatever you're into now is proving to be a more promising read for you, John.

Happy 2009!

John Mutford said...

Wanda: I guess I didn't think the story was strong enough (or interesting enough) to overcome all my other issues. Still, glad you enjoyed it. To each her own.

Happy reading in 2009!

Anonymous said...

I agree that it is a 21st-century point of view.
It looks like McKay's attempts at being funny were wasted on me!!!