Here's my latest review, of Nova Scotia-by-way-of-Indiana novelist Ami McKay's new book The Birth House.
All of you with first novels tucked in drawers should find McKay's story encouraging...because aside from a few CBC radio docs and a story in Room of One's Own, McKay has few publishing credits to her name.
Well, except now she has a novel out under Knopf Canada's New Face of Fiction banner...and a review of same in this weekend's Winnipeg Free Press by yours truly.
* * *
The Birth House
By Ami McKay
Knopf Canada, 400 pages, $29.95
Reviewed by Ariel Gordon
Over the last decade, Knopf Canada has published a series of novels under the heading The New Face of Fiction in the belief that “Canadians will seek out and read good new writers if their books are brought into the marketplace with the care, attention and fanfare they deserve.”
Though there have been nearly as many male authors published via the imprint as females, the successes to date have all been female – witness Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall On Your Knees (1996), Shauna Singh Baldwin’s What the Body Remembers (1999), and Mary Lawson’s Crow Lake (2002).
It therefore seems appropriate that the book published to celebrate the tin anniversary of the series is woman-centered, concerning itself with the early twentieth-century battle between the medical establishment and midwives.
Unfortunately, Nova Scotia resident Ami McKay’s The Birth House will not likely have as strong a showing as those of her sisters in fiction, as the conflict between the come-from-away doctor, Gilbert Thomas, and the blunt Acadian midwife, Marie Babineau, is far too black and white to satisfy most readers.
Marie works from a tradition of delivering at home, among friends and is passing along this practice to her protégé, seventeen year-old Dora Rare, when a stillborn baby brings them to Dr. Thomas’ attention. Preferring forceps, ether, and submissive patients to anything Marie can bring to bear, Dr. Thomas all-too-predictably stoops to insinuations and threats to keep them away from the pregnant women of Scots Bay, Nova Scotia. Soon, the two sides are fighting for the loyalty of the families of the community, pitting tradition against modernity and folklore against science.
In addition to her unambiguous characters and predictable plotting, McKay’s prose falls far too often into an old-timey sing-song that feels strange juxtaposed with the Sears catalogue advertisements for sewing machines and social column newspaper clippings that she chose to include with the text.
Witness the following lines from the book’s prologue: “My house stands at the edge of the earth. Together, the house and I have held strong against he churning tides of Fundy. Two sisters, stubborn in our bones.”
All of that said, McKay is able to successfully draw on both Canadian and American east coast folklore, which gives her story some-much needed texture. She melds everything from the Virginia Dare legend that arose out of the lost colony at Roanoke Island, to the dramatic story of the Acadian expulsion from Nova Scotia to Louisiana, to the quieter stories of Scottish immigration to Canada.
This mixture of influences makes sense when you consider that McKay is a recent immigrant to Canada. Born in Indiana, she moved to an old farmhouse in Scots Bay when she married a Canadian in 1999. The wait for her residency papers, along with the isolation of rural Nova Scotia, gave the one-time music teacher the time and space to write. The discovery that her house had been the former residence of the community’s midwife, along with the home birth of her second child, provided the seeds for her story.
The book’s literary rawness can be explained by the fact that it is not just McKay’s first novel but also her first book. Most, if not all of the authors published under The New Face of Fiction banner already had collections of poetry or short stories under their belts (like Singh Baldwin) or had worked in related fields like playwriting (like McDonald).
Still, after ten years and thirty novels, Knopf Canada deserves to be commended for its commitment to new Canadian fiction. The Birth House, while far from perfect, is a solid and sometimes lovable addition to the ranks of first novels.
Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer expecting her first child in June 2006.