Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times
Audiobook read by Nicola Barber
Penguin Books (2012), Trade Paperback (ISBN 1611749247 / 9781611749243)
Nonfiction: autobiography/memoir, 352 pages
Source: purchased audiobook (Highbridge Audio, 2012, ISBN 9781611749250, Audible ASIN B009899R76)
I don’t often buy audiobooks on a whim, but after I finished listening to The Cuckoo’s Calling I was craving more British narration, and when Call the Midwife popped up as a suggestion on Audible, I decided to take them up on it.
Written several decades after Jennifer Worth’s experiences as an in-home nurse/midwife in 1950s London, Call the Midwife felt like old-school memoir to me—that is, the kind of book produced by someone going about “writing their memoirs,” because they have all these great stories to tell. In fact, given that this is the first of three volumes, Worth literally did “write her memoirs,” and she does have plenty of stories. The book feels more like a collection of anecdotes than a structured narrative, and as such, it was easy for me to see why it became the source material for a very popular British TV series.
Worth’s experiences as a young midwife in the downtrodden East End of post-World War II London brought her into contact with many families—some large, some small, most poor—and a slew of colorful characters, whose lives she portrays sympathetically and vividly. She gives readers a real feel for the 1950s in the London docklands, a time and place that feel much further away than they really are, and what she says about mid-twentieth-century women’s healthcare offers new perspectives on some current debates. However, while Worth includes generous amounts of historical and social context, Call the Midwife is ultimately a personal story…and in that respect, I found it a little disappointing.
There are a few lengthy sections in which she narrates the personal histories of patients—stories from before she knew these women. While those stories are interesting on their own merits, they engaged me less than those of births that she attended and the families whose lives more directly affected hers, and I didn’t find enough of her own story here to satisfy me. I still have too many questions about the person who should have been at the center of this.
Perhaps those questions are addressed in the other two volumes of Worth’s memoirs—and if they’re also available on audiobook and read by Nicola Barber, I just might decide to find out. Listening to Barber’s voice work was an absolute delight, and I’d love to hear more of it. Call the Midwife was a fine audiobook experience, and an often fascinating glimpse of recent history.
At the age of twenty-two, Jennifer Worth leaves her comfortable home to move into a convent and become a midwife in post war London’s East End slums. The colorful characters she meets while delivering babies all over London—from the plucky, warm-hearted nuns with whom she lives to the woman with twenty-four children who can’t speak English to the prostitutes and dockers of the city’s seedier side—illuminate a fascinating time in history. Beautifully written and utterly moving, Call The Midwife will touch the hearts of anyone who is, and everyone who has, a mother.
From Chapter One:
“Why did I ever start this? I must have been mad! There were dozens of other things I could have been–a model, air hostess, or ship’s stewardess. The ideas run through my head, all glamorous, highly-paid jobs. Only an idiot would choose to be a nurse. And now a midwife…
“Two-thirty in the morning! I struggle, half asleep, into my uniform. Only three hours sleep after a seventeen-hour working day. Who would do such a job? It is bitterly cold and raining outside. Nonnatus House itself is cold enough, and the bicycle shed even colder. In the dark I wrench at a bicycle and crack my shin. Through blind force of habit, I fit my delivery bag on to the bicycle, and push it out into the deserted street.”