The Birth House by Ami McKay (Knopf), 382 pages, $29.92 cloth. Rating: NNN
Knopf's new face of fiction series sets the bar high. It launched the fiction careers of Ann-Marie MacDonald, Dionne Brand and Yann Martel, a not too shabby list, you'll agree.
But when you compare Ami McKay's The Birth House, the sole novel to make the New Faces list in the series' 10th anniversary, to other works in the series, it doesn't quite stack up.
To be sure, the story of the midwife Dora fighting to resist the medicalization of birthing in small-town Nova Scotia is beautifully written. You can see why editors plucked this out of the stack of manuscripts that crossed their desks. McKay doesn't write like a first-time novelist. She's got pointed politics but deploys them with a deft poetic style, and she's dug deep into Maritime history to tell a story that rips right along.
But there is a bit of a movie-of-the- week sensibility here. It's full of two-dimensional good and bad guys or, to be more precise, good women and bad men. The females are almost all cluckingly supportive, and the villains all male. Gilbert Thomas, the doctor attempting to encroach on the birthing process, might as well be twirling his moustache, and Brady Ketch, wife beater and child abuser, is pure cardboard.
Then again, that's what gives the book its energy. The novel unabashedly cheerleads for the movement supporting women's right to control our own bodies. But a sequence in which Thomas introduces Dora to the pleasures of the vibrator is it sex ed or sex abuse? provides the kind of ambiguity that makes for great fiction.
In moments like those, you can tell that McKay's got the goods.
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McKay reads and speaks at the Ryerson School of Midwifery Sunday (February 19). See Readings for details.