Book review: Call The Midwife by Jennifer Worth

It would be very difficult for this book to live up to my hopes considering how strongly I feel about the BBC Television series it spawned, but it came close. To write prose with the elegant power that would be required to make the written word as moving, emotional and thought-provoking as the beautifully written and performed TV series would require an unusual literary skill, and Worth, a nurse not a writer, almost has it. Her organization of the chapters into distinct stories around particular characteristics or themes is extremely effective and engaging in a way that would be hard to duplicate with a strictly chronological narrative, and one can readily see how nicely it suited the format of a weekly television series.

My greatest curiosity was to see how closely the stories in the TV series mirror those Worth tells in her book, and, especially to see if the book also evokes the same tender compassion that’s the hallmark of the television program.  I’m extremely happy to report that on the latter point, the answer is yes.  As I said, I don’t believe Worth is as prosaic or eloquent as the video production, but her style indeed is warm, compassionate and self-effacing. To some degree, the book has a bit more of the gritty feel of the London slums, and Worth very vividly describes the sights, smells and sounds of the East End in the late ’50s and early ’60s.  Although it doesn’t pull punches, the view of East End poverty in the TV show sometimes seems slightly sanitized; that is not the case in Worth’s book.

Her description of her encounter with a particularly filthy woman who turns out to have syphilis is an excellent case in point.  Worth describes her revulsion at the woman’s appearance and her outrage when she sees the woman seeming to abuse her two young children verbally and physically.  But as the story progresses, she also slips in new details she learns about the woman’s situation and the lessons she learns from watching the non-judgmental nuns deal with the woman, so that by the end of the story, one has a greater sense of compassion for the poverty-stricken woman, an appreciation for Worth’s acquired humility and an extremely subtle and effective hint at the spiritual leadership of the Nonnatus House nuns that slowly chip away at her condescending attitude toward religion.

Similarly, it was fascinating to see Worth’s interactions with the Warren couple and their 24-and-growing brood. Indeed, her description of the crisis involving No. 25’s premature birth was one of many points during the book when I simply could not put it down until I had finished the passage.  And it was interesting to note the three stories Worth tells of interracial birth that get blended into a single episode in the TV series.

While it becomes clear as the book progresses – much like the central character in Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken – that Worth is undergoing a spiritual awakening, her approach to that event is so unassuming and deftly handled that one gets a greater appreciation for the meaningful personal changes that working at Nonnatus House began in Worth’s life.  There are two more books in this series, and I am eager to take them both up in my reading this year.  I’m not sure that one needs to read the books to have a greater appreciation for the wondrous television production or whether it is accurate to say that either format is merely complementary to the other.  The happy fact is that each overflows with a sense of human compassion.  Each could stand fine on its own, and it must be said that the television series is much richer and deeper in its story telling and personal detail, but both are joys not to be missed.