This is a fine first novel, one that has been well publicized and recently made The Globe and Mail's bestseller list. The story is warm and inviting, a tale of a young woman groomed from an early age to be the apprentice and successor of the local midwife in a small coastal Nova Scotia town. McKay has a gift for narration and description - many of the passages are almost lyrical, particularly the prologue and opening paragraphs of Chapter One. The protagonist, Dora Rare, seems like someone I'd like to befriend - she is wise and loyal. Overall it was an enjoyable read that I was happy to pick up and immerse myself in, which is the most important quality in a nice piece of escapist fiction.
That said, I do have some quibbles about this book. I felt like none of the characters in the book (even Dora) were fully fleshed out. They didn't feel completely "real" to me and their motivation was not always clear - something that tends to bug me as I'm one of those people who is constantly asking why. Dora's "enemy"- an obstetrical doctor hell-bent on promoting "scientific" ways of birthing - felt extremely one-dimensional. The dialogue also felt a little stilted at times, and I occasionally found myself tripping over all the references to historical events and lore that were included in the book. I think that research can do a lot to add authenticity to a historical novel, but the history must always serve the story and occasionally it felt like The Birth House went a bit in the opposite direction, as entertaining as the results might have been.
On the whole I found myself thinking, at times, that the book came across as a bit of "wishful thinking" - the way the author wishes that things might have been, rather than the way they probably were. That's not always a bad thing in historical fiction - Marion Zimmer Bradley's divine Trojan War retelling, The Firebrand, comes to mind here - but to work, it needs to be a very strong story that sweeps you up and makes YOU wish that things had been that way, too. Ultimately, The Birth House didn't quite pull that off for me.
In spite of all that, I greatly look forward to meeting the author on Thursday evening, when she will be in Vancouver, and hearing her read from her work.