Wednesday, 20 March 2019

There’s no point in separating the reviews for these three - Call the Midwife Omnibus by Jennifer Worth

You may have heard, only very vaguely mind, of this show on BBC1 on Sunday nights. It’s set in 50’s London, in the east end, and is about a cabal of nuns who train a gang of young women to rip 9 month-old fetuses from the wombs of the desperately poor. It was based on a series of books, Call the Midwife, Shadows of the Workhouse and Farewell to the East End. Because I am lazy, I’ll be offering a very vague review which covers all three books.

Basically, it’s like the TV series but with more words.

Call The Midwife covers Jenny Lee’s entry to Poplar and her early days as a midwife. Shadows of the Workhouse is largely concerned with stories from the community, about the poverty and deprivation which existed in the first half of the century. Farewell to the East End concentrates on the cases attended by Worth’s co-workers, Trixie, Chummy and Cynthia.

There was less focus on midwifery than I expected but Worth is a good writer who can tell an engaging tale in a largely non judgemental way - the worst I could say of her is that she thinks like somebody born before the war. She represents the time and the struggles well but keeps a veil drawn across her own life and her own circumstances. I think there are questions to be asked about the morality of profiting from stories which don’t belong to you, but I recognise that without Worth, they would have been lost: the people whose stories she tells have nobody else.

I enjoyed the third book the most, coincidentally the first of the three I read. It focussed on the midwifery and took a more technical approach to things. I’ve yet to find anybody willing to impregnate me, so I had little appreciation for quite how much goes on as one attempts to extract life from one’s vagina - let me tell you, it is fascinating.

The books don’t quite have that terrific mix of edge and cosy the TV show has, but the bones are here. Chummy, Trixie et al are not significant side characters in the way Siegfried and Tristan are in James Herriot’s memoirs, and there’s no overarching “story”, so those hoping for an expansion on the show - in the way books often are to their screen counterparts - will leave disappointed.

I liked them, but I didn’t love them. There’s honestly not much to pick one over the other, so don’t be afeered to start out of order, there’s no story arc here. They were interesting, though, and with me that counts for a lot.

3.5 stars

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