Book: The Harem Midwife by Roberta Rich (new 2014)
If you’re a fan of Call the Midwife on TV, you should love the novel, The Harem Midwife.
Besides, the book is appropriate reading for Passover. This Jewish couple whom you first met in Venice, was forced out of the ghetto there and have settled in the far more tolerant Istanbul. Still they must walk carefully in their new life and their Venetian past haunts them.
To recap the events of the first book, Roberta Rich introduced us to Hannah, who served as a midwife in the Jewish ghetto of Venice and was frequently called by high-born Christians, even though they were full of superstitions about Jews. Her husband Isaac is kidnapped and sold into slavery on the island of Malta. Meanwhile, back in Venice, Hannah rescues a child of a Venetian nobleman when his father and mother are killed in a fire. She flees to Malta to join Isaac, who has been helped out of slavery by a nun.
In the sequel, they have settled in Constantinople, where Isaac makes and sells silk fabric, which he learned to make during his time in Malta. Hannah has won the friendship of the court as she frequently is called to the harem in the Topkapi Palace to deliver babies–a busy job since the sultan fathered 132 children.
Danger lurks when an uncle of Hannah and Isaac’s adopted son (the rescued noble child) comes to Istanbul scheming to get the child back and own the family fortune. A woman he is in league with comes along with him, pretending to be Isaac’s sister-in-law and asking for money Isaac had borrowed from his now dead brother. Not only that, but as part of her duties of verifying the virginity of slave girls, Hannah lies to the Sultan about a young girl from a Jewish hill tribe, and that lie threatens to unravel her relationship with the court.
This novel gives the reader a beautiful picture of life in the court of Constantinople, although there is less variety of social classes than there was in the first novel. While I was totally caught up in the plot of the first novel, eagerly cheering on Hannah and Isaac through their misadventures, I found credulity strained by some of the happenings in this book.
It is fortunate indeed that Hannah has the ear of the powerful Salide–wife of the Sultan, because that woman becomes the deus ex machina that prevents the loss of Hannah’s child and Isaac’s business. The conclusion seemed to me rather sudden and all too pat.
I would not want to discourage you from reading this book, particularly if you were a fan of the first, The Midwife of Venice, because it has many good points, and particularly for the traveler who reads. Whether you have been to Istanbul (the former Constantinople) or not, there is no question that it is one of the most intriguing cities on earth. And Roberta Rich has added to that intrigue by painting a vivid picture of what it took to survive within the palace of the Sultan, or as a Jew in this supposedly tolerant atmosphere.
Here’s Roberta Rich, talking about the sequel to the Midwife of Venice.