Hazel McHaffie

The Midwife of Venice

‘At midnight, the dogs, cats and rats rule Venice. The Ponte di Ghetto Nuovo, the bridge that leads to the ghetto, trembles under the weight of sacks of rotting vegetables, rancid fat, and vermin … It was on such a night that the men came for Hannah.’

How about that for an opening hook?

And this for a delightfully evocative spooky cover …

The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich is an ambitious debut novel set in the sixteenth century. (Echoes of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice are, I presume, deliberate.) Hannah Levi is a Jewish midwife famed throughout Venice for her exceptional skills. However, the law forbids her to attend a Christian woman, the penalties being severe, endangering not only Hannah personally, but the entire Jewish ghetto. It’s a time when anti-Semitism is rife: ‘if a sparrow falls from the sky in Venice, it is considered the fault of the Jews.’ So when a Christian nobleman, Conte di Padovani, appears at the door of her hovel in the Jewish ghetto in the dead of night, demanding her services for his wife, she is torn between a natural compassion and a fear of retribution. He offers her a handsome reward – sufficient money indeed to ransom back her husband, Isaac, who has been captured and held as a slave by the Knights in Malta.

Both the Contessa Lucia and her unborn son are near death by the time Hannah is summoned. If she were to fail to save them she would be in terrible jeopardy. But by some miracle and the application of her special instruments, the child is delivered. Alive. Just. Thwarting the machinations of the Conte’s greedy and feckless brothers who are poised to inherit everything if the child dies; leaving several people bent on revenge.

Hannah’s story in Venice is interspersed with Isaac’s experiences trying to escape his captors in Malta. Having been to both places, I found the scenes evocative, mesmerising and convincing. For me, the suspense in Venice feels more compelling than that in Malta, but there is the added tension of wondering whether this couple will ever see each other again. Hannah and Isaac parted after an argument. Desperately seeking to be reunited, to make reparation, they are thwarted at every turn. Will their joint disappointments and sadnesses ever end? As they both set sail towards each other on broiling seas we are held in suspense … even now will their paths cross cruelly as their respective ships plough on through turbulent waters?

Love, blackmail, murder, plague, intercultural tension, rescue … it’s a tale which rollocks along, weaving a tapestry of pictures of Renaissance Italy, and religious and cultural bigotry, and family rivalries.

The rigid discipline of ancient laws and entrenched customs forms an immovable spine for this book. Even when lives and happiness are a stake, the Jews fear disobeying their ancient codes and commandments. The Rabbi has been urging Isaac for years to divorce Hannah¬† because of her barrenness; now the Society for the Release of Captives is ready to release private funds to pay his ransom … if, and only if, he signs the divorce papers. Such inflexibility is a complete mystery to gentiles – as a Maltese man says to Isaac:¬† ‘Your laws are designed to create unhappiness.’ But they too have their own strong prejudices and suspicions.

For the most part the pace, the language, the style of writing, is entirely apposite for the period, and the glossary and biography at the back are testament to the care Rich has taken to ensure authenticity. However, I must confess I harboured a sneaky feeling that a few of the more modern expression or pithy insults might have been doctored for our more twenty-first century ears. But I might be entirely wrong.

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