The Midwife of Venice
Review by Ilysa Magnus (Historical Novel Society)
In this beautifully conceived debut novel, Hannah, a young Jewish midwife living in the ghetto of Venice, has her late night disturbed by the pleas of a Christian nobleman. When he begs her to attend his wife, who is close to death while birthing the conte’s first child, Hannah knows full well the risks – a Jewish woman does not midwife a Christian child. There are simply too many implications for the easily targeted Jewish community in Venice. Indeed, Hannah goes against every instinct and the rabbi’s strict denouncement of the plan, and she brings little Matteo into the world with the birthing spoons she has invented.
Why? The conte has offered her 200 ducats of gold, money which Hannah intends to use to free her imprisoned husband, Isaac, who is held somewhere in Malta. What follows is not merely a paean to deeply felt love, on many levels, but a finely drawn plot with well-developed characters to whom the reader feels a deep connection.
This is a richly painted portrayal of life in 16th-century Venice and Malta – places where Jews are despised and easily targeted, enslaved and brutalized. The sights and smells, many of them malodorous and pungent, the sense of alienation between Christians and Jews, the political and social implications of that alienation are all succinctly captured by Rich. Historical fact is well preserved in the fictional story, and it seems clear that Rich herself feels an abiding connection with that story and her characters. The pages fly by as we too connect deeply with Hannah and Isaac. A highly recommended novel.