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Moving tale explores prejudice and change

By The Cornishman  |  Posted: October 25, 2012

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The Midwife's Daughter by Patricia Ferguson

Review by Rachael Howorth, Edge of the World Bookshop, Penzance

"ANYONE in Silkhampton of the poorer class, aged 28 or under, stood a fair chance of having been seen into the world by Violet Dimond.

"She was Mrs Dimond, urgently sent for in the middle of the night, in possession of the grisliest secrets of the hidden adult world."

We meet Violet just as the 20th century dawns, when the medical world doesn't think the good old ways are good enough anymore.

Her life's about to change but the loneliness of widowhood and the grief of losing her beloved daughter Ruth are set to change too.

At the orphanage where her twin sister works, there is a sickly baby who looks startlingly like her own lost daughter. But the baby is also black.

Violet "had seen occasional black men: once a group of them singing in a music hall years back, she knew they existed, of black women she had no notion".

How can this baby look just like her own daughter Ruth?

Violet decides this must be a message from God and she takes home the orphan Gracie, to nurse her back to health.

What follows is a moving tale of prejudice and the struggle to fit into a changing world. Gracie, trying to escape her otherness, Violet struggling to cope with the harsh demise of her ancient trade.

It's a literary novel that has echoes of Helen Dunmore's Zennor In Darkness with central characters who live and breathe.

Its setting, the fictional Cornish market town of Silkhampton and the fishing village of Porthkerris lack the local realism that makes Patrick Gale's books zing.

It's a shame that the settings are not more recognisably villages we know, but the descriptions of the sea are evocatively beautiful.

It's a rich novel that vividly brings the changing lives of women in the 20th century into focus.

Enjoyable and highly recommended.

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