Historical novels can open windows onto the past, shedding light on parts of society previously hidden from view. Already segregated because of their religion, and with their influence kept to the private sphere, the lives of Jewish women in Renaissance Venice were more concealed than many.
In her debut novel, Roberta Rich introduces a unique heroine, and her wry humour leavens a serious subject. Not wholly an intense social drama or an over-the-top adventure, The Midwife of Venice is a quirky yet diverting blend of both.
The year is 1575. Word about Hannah Levi's expert skills in midwifery has spread even to the Venetian nobility, which prompts a late-night visit to her apartment in the Ghetto Nuovo. The Conte di Padovani's wife, Lucia, lies close to death in childbirth, and he desperately needs Hannah's help.
Hannah's decision to accompany the Conte to his palazzo goes against her rabbi's wishes as well as a papal edict. Jews are forbidden to treat Christian patients, and if either the mother or the child dies, she will bring the wrath of Christian Venice down on everyone in the ghetto. And should anyone in the Conte's household discover her birthing spoons, the forbidden tool she invented to assist with deliveries, she could be charged with witchcraft.
In return for this high-risk endeavour, she strikes a bargain: As payment, she asks for enough money to rescue her husband. While on a trading voyage, Isaac was captured by mercenaries in the pay of the Knights of St. John, men "reeking of drink and sweat and religion," and languishes in prison on Malta.
So begins a lively tale involving love, blackmail, family, murder, plague, intercultural compassion, dramatic last-minute rescues and some very creative disguises. There is a lot going on, and the brisk pacing ensures ever-changing action.
Rich skips back and forth between the couple's stories, demonstrating her talent in writing cliffhanger endings. Hannah helps Lucia give birth to a healthy son, Matteo, then safeguards the infant from his wicked uncles in his parents' absence. Isaac is sold into slavery, passed from owner to owner, keeping himself alive through his writing skills and quick wit. He and Hannah hold fast to their faith and mutual devotion, even at great risk to themselves.
By definition, novels set in Venice must exude atmosphere, and this one positively drips with it. Rather than a glittering city overflowing with sensual decadence, readers are presented with a darker vision of greasy canal waters, pavements slick with refuse and a luxuriously appointed bedchamber "scented with the coppery odour of blood." The traumatic birth scene holds nothing back. Through the experiences of Hannah, Lucia and Jessica - Hannah's estranged sister, a courtesan and New Christian - Rich capably depicts the strength of women and the precariousness of their lives, regardless of status or religion. She also makes clear the plight of the Jews, forced to make their way in a world that views them with suspicion and hatred.
The characters are broadly drawn, and the plot can be as porous as the spongy ground near the Grand Canal. Why doesn't the Conte realize that his brothers are a threat to Matteo? If the Knights of St. John intend to hold Isaac for ransom, why sell him into a situation sure to kill him?
For those looking for a meaty historical novel that leaves no loose ends, this may not be the best book to choose. But if you might like seeing Jewish folklore and Mediterranean history wrapped into a rousing story, suspend your disbelief for a time and follow along with Hannah and Isaac as they fight their way back to one another.
Sarah Johnson's latest book is Historical Fiction II: A Guide to the Genre. She blogs about historical novels at readingthepast.com.