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October 5, 2012 7:41 pm
The Midwife’s Daughter, by Patricia Ferguson, Penguin, RRP£7.99, 400 pages
The Midwife’s Daughter, Patricia Ferguson’s fourth novel, follows the lives of a group of emotionally damaged – and in some cases, physically disfigured – people who are brought together in “important secret ways”. The story begins in 1918 when Corporal Joe Gilder, wounded in the first world war, is sent to convalesce in a Cornish town, where he falls in love with a kitchen maid.
Everything about Grace Dimond “was normal and real; the only difference was that it was all brown”. Her skin tells only the surface story. As well as being known as “the Silkhampton Darkie”, Grace is an orphan with a maimed hand, who speaks an “incomprehensible dialect” – and there is, too, “an underlying weakness of the lungs”.
Joe is a Yorkshireman – “foreign, ain’t he?” – chased from a loveless home and coming to terms with being “a chap with half his bum shot away”, while Violet, the midwife of the title and Grace’s adoptive mother, is tormented by the loss of her biological daughter years before. Violet’s identical twin Bea carries deep secrets and scars. All these lives have been shattered by jealousy (a son “whose mother never liked him much”), fear (“I’m scared of everything. Of course I’m scared of you”) and loss.
Ferguson should be better known: her two previous books, It So Happens (2005) and Peripheral Vision (2007) were both longlisted for the Orange Prize. She draws on years of experience working as a nurse and midwife to produce acute, skilful descriptions of bodies, and of the cruel, visceral things done to them; “the horrible unnatural tucks and folds in the thin red new skin ... twisted crevices, rope-like protuberances.”
The war is a distant backdrop to the narrative (boys leaving home; girls moving from service to work in munitions factories), while the violence occurs in the town’s civilian life, casually, accidentally. Gradually, Ferguson’s layers build into a broader meditation on hurt and the possibility of healing. A statue is erected to the Fallen: and a war memorial, suggests Ferguson, is really the scar from a tragic “accident”. In the end, hope lies in coming to terms with (all sorts of) disfigurement and preventing it from happening again.
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