Book: The Midwife of Venice, NEW April 2012 by Roberta Rich
There is a corner of Venice, away from the bustle and hustlers of the Rialto and San Marcos that seems too austere to be part of the self-consciously gilded and carved and painted face of the city. While the decaying charm of the palazzi along the grand canal charms most visitors, the quiet mystery of the Jewish Ghetto stoked Roberta Rich‘s imagination. That area roused my curiosity, too, but not being a novelist, I took some pictures and moved on. Rich pondered the life of the Jews who lived a restrictive life in the Ghetto while the merchant classes prospered and lived sparkling lives, sure of their place in the greatest city on earth. Her ponderings led to this novel that evokes a lesser known life in a certain time in a place that you thought you knew.
In The Midwife of Venice , already a best seller in Canada before its recent release in the United States, Rich tells the story of a Jewish midwife who lives in the Venetian Ghetto. The novel segues between the dangerous choices facing Hannah the midwife when she is asked to illegally provide her services to a wealthy Christian merchant’s wife, and the survival tale of her husband, who has been kidnapped off a merchant ship and taken to Malta where he was sold into slavery.
Although this is her first novel, Rich tells her story so skillfully that I ended the book wondering how she had managed to pack so much of the lives of 16th century Venetians, rich and poor, Christian and Jew, into one not-that-long book. I was so wrapped up in the story with all its twists and dangers that I was surprised when I enumerated the information I had accumulated about the period. From the life of a Venetian courtesan to the life of a nun on the island of Malta, from the beliefs and practices of 16th century Jews to the contrasting beliefs and attitudes of Christians, from the slave trade of the Knights of Malta to the inheritance laws of Venice, from the art of midwife to the business of merchants, Rich has carefully woven solid research into her readable novel.
Don’t get me wrong–this is not a book to read because it is “good for you,” but because you’ll enjoy its universal themes of spousal and maternal love, sacrifice, and making difficult choices.
The characters are distinct and unforgettable. Hannah’s irrepressible husband, Isaac, cannot control his sharp tongue, even when he is on the auction block. His traditional Jewish beard having been shorn, this dialogue takes place at the auction:
The stocky man heckled, “How do I know he is learned if he has no beard? Does not the Jew obtain wisdom from his hairy chin?”
Isaac raised his head and managed to say to his tormentor in a voice hoarse from disuse, “If men be judged wise by their beards, then that billy goat over there,”–he motioned with his chin in the direction of the livestock pen across the square–“would be the wisest among us.”
The non-nonsense nun who rescues Joseph so that she can convert him, is like no female he has ever seen before.
Sister Assunta’s wrists were as big around as Isaac’s biceps, her face as harsh and angular as Malta itself. Clean water, fresh air, prayer, and wholesome food evidently made nuns grow massive in Valletta. With those hands and feet and low voice–was she male, female, or a member of a sort of middle sex with the most unpleasant aspects of each gender?
And the author draws every character with the same sharp observation.
Today, when you visit the Ghetto in Vienna, the first thing you notice is that the buildings are taller than most in the city. That is because with the Jews confined to this small area, it was necessary to allow them to expand their buildings upward. Even when a dozen people might be living in one room, the ever-growing population needed more space.
The most obvious landmark on the large campo in the center of these old buildings, is a memorial to Jews who died in the Holocaust. It points up a somewhat ironic fact of history. We are conditioned to associate the term “ghetto” with Nazi mandated restrictions on where Jews could live, but in fact the Venetian ghetto dates centuries before Hitler, when their skills as bankers and laborers were grudgingly accepted, but the Christian church labeled them as Christ-killers and played on superstitions that blamed them for plague, the death of children, and any other disaster that came along. And even more ironic, as we learn in the later part of the book, the Islamic rulers of Constantinople gave freedoms to Jews that the Christians of Venice denied them.
This novel will give reader unfamiliar with Venice a kind of map of the city. Unlike nearly every other famous city, skyscrapers have not replaced historic buildings so Venice today looks very like Venice of the 16th century, plus sanitary systems, minus wandering pigs and minus the plague. Fortunately, the Ghetto is no longer the dreary cesspool that Rich describes at the beginning of the book.
The other setting of the book, Malta, does not emerge as clearly from the narrative, but I was certainly encouraged to learn more about the history of Malta from reading this novel. The Midwife of Venice is a definitely good addition to the traveler’s library.
Note: The publishers provided Midwife of Venice to me for review. I am much too old and crotchety to let that affect my judgment of the book. All pictures here are my own and I would appreciate your respect for my copyright. Links enable you to make purchases at Amazon.com, and when you do, A Traveler’s Library makes a few cents. Please, when you are going to shop at Amazon, do so through my links. It costs you no more.
If you’ve been to Venice, did you discover the Ghetto? Did you realize Malta had a thriving slave trade in the Italian Renaissance?