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Details, not the story, will stay with readers

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The Midwife of Venice

By Roberta Rich

Doubleday Canada, 336 pages, $23

CANADIAN Roberta Rich has combined two subjects of historical fiction -- anti-Semitism and midwifery -- in her first stab at commercial fiction

Set in 16th-century Italy, it's the story of a Jewish midwife who agrees to attend the birth of a nobleman's child, even though it goes against papal edict for a Jew to help a Christian. It will put her entire ghetto at risk if something goes wrong during the already difficult birth.

Imagine what Ami McKay could have done with that material if she'd worked it into her 2006 midwife tale, The Birth House, set in early 20th-century Nova Scotia.

The Italian count has not stumbled on his midwife, Hannah, by accident. Her reputation for coaxing stubborn babies from their mothers' wombs has spread through Venice, though few know that her success is largely due to her treasured invention, a rudimentary form of forceps she calls birthing spoons.

Hannah is reluctant to go with the desperate nobleman, but sees the opportunity to free her husband Isaac, who has been sold as a slave in Malta. She demands 200 gold ducats -- enough for her to sail to Malta and pay Isaac's ransom -- and the count agrees.

Roberta Rich, who divides her time between B.C. and Mexico, alternates between the plight of these two lovers, and though they are apart, their devotion to one another is believable.

Sixteenth-century Venice, too, is well realized. Rich has clearly done her research and paints vivid imagery, from the grime of the plague-ridden canal city to the ostentatious opulence of the count's home.

At times, though, her language is too florid; at others, too coarse. Contrast, for example, "The moon shining through the high clerestory windows cast rhomboid shadows on the jewel colours" with "It was like walking into the arsehole of a camel."

However, she employs the flowery phrases only when depicting the upper crust of Venice. The street language is saved for Isaac and the brutish crowd he's with in Malta. Her diction, then, is consciously chosen to fit each setting and narrator.

While the imagery is vivid -- for better or for worse, the above simile is not the only mention of a camel's anal orifice -- the story itself is shallow. Rich seems to suffer from a fear of causing too much trouble for her protagonists, resulting in a plot that feels too contrived.

It's not that Rich doesn't throw obstacles in their paths. In fact, Hannah and Isaac face more than their fair share of barriers in their quest to reunite: murderous uncles, thieving midwives, illiterate slave owners, storm-tossed seas, imminent starvation and, to top it all off, the plague.

As dire as these obstacles are, Rich does away with them swiftly and neatly before giving them time to gain any real purchase.

The cast of secondary characters is lively -- and in the case of the oafish Joseph, enjoyably despicable -- but again, there is great potential for them to truly propel the story. Instead, they simply skim the surface.

The Midwife of Venice offers much for readers to learn in the ways of Renaissance-era midwifery, the slave trade and even the diabolical tricks of 16th-century courtesans.

It is those details -- and unfortunately, not the story -- that will stay with readers.

Jennifer Ryan is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 12, 2011 H9

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