Although I don’t actively seek out historical fiction, every so often a book comes along that completely transports me back in time. Such was the case with Kate Manning‘s brilliant new release, My Notorious Life.
Admittedly, I was open to experience 1860s New York on the page, based on a truly memorable visit to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum over a decade ago. It is without question the best museum I’ve been to. Ever.
But I digress. This story begins on the streets of New York with three soon-to-be orphans – Axie (Ann) Muldoon, her younger sister, Dutch, and her baby brother, Joe. Circumstances force the siblings apart and Axie, apprenticed to a female doctor, learns all there is about midwifery and ‘female complaints’.
The notoriety? According to character Anthony Comstock, founder of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, that comes with assisting women with ‘obstructions’ (performing abortions) and educating them about birth control (in those days, contraception amounted to rudimentary spermicides, ‘French letters’ and the rhythm method).
“Remember Annie love, said my teacher, – that the soul of a midwife is a broad soul and a gentle soul, and she delivers the greatest blessing the Lord bestows on us poor creatures. But a midwife must also keep comfortable with the complexities. What i call the lesser evil. You will learn not to judge too harsh on others.”
My Notorious Life is inspired by the true story of an infamous female physician, Ann Trow Lohman, who was once called ‘the Wickedest Woman in New York’. In creating the character of Axie, Manning speculates on the documented rumors that Ann Lohman staged her own death.
The book is written in the vernacular of the poor Irish immigrant which successfully brings Axie to life. Despite her seemingly tough exterior, Axie grows into her role as a midwife, slowly recognising its importance in a time when disparity between social classes was significant and when women had few rights, particularly in relation to their own health and fertility.
I likened the story to The Cider House Rules meets Angela’s Ashes but that’s not the only reason I loved it. Manning renders a picture of New York in the 1860s so vivid that you could almost smell the putrid gutters, craved light in the dingy tenement rooms and felt your stomach rumble for a crust of bread.
“…the cobbled hard pavement of new York City was the roofless and only domicile of thirty-five thousand children. in our hideous number we scraps was cast outdoors or lost by our parents, we was orphans and half orphans and runaways, the miserable offspring of irish and germans, italians and Russians, servants and slaves, Magdalenes and miscreants, all the unwashed poor huddled slubs who landed yearning and unlucky on the Battery with nothing to own but our muscles and teeth, the hunger of our bellies.”
Equally, Manning’s descriptions of Axie’s medical practice prompt horror and fascination but are nonetheless filled with Axie’s quiet respect for her patients –
“in the clinic i laid him on the table. He was no bigger than a minute. His black eyes stared at the air like it was interesting. The branches of blue veins was a netting under his scalp, and his heart beat in the soft fontanel there…. i washed him and brought him back to his mother, whose face broke with helplessness and wonder.”
Manning’s triumph is in the terror which she carefully conveys on almost every page. It begins with Axie fearing for where her siblings’ next meal would come from; it continues with the children’s trip on the ‘orphan train’; it’s palatable when Axie delivers a baby; it’s with every patient who fears for her life if she has to give birth again; and it’s with the threat of the law that hangs over Axie’s every move.
4/5 This book cost me two very late nights – I really couldn’t put it down.
I received my copy of My Notorious Life from the publisher, Scribner via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
There’s an early scene when Charlie, wooing Axie, brings her a paper cone of fried oysters. It’s a lovely scene but the thought of fried oysters is far from thrilling. Instead, I’ll pair My Notorious Life with blinis and caviar, served at Axie’s lavish housewarming party.