My Notorious Life
by Kate Manning
Confession: I picked this book up three or four times before finally bringing it home. I wasn’t sure I wanted to read a first person narrative. But the cover! The words surrounding that silhouette on the jacket –
It brought to mind one of my favorite novels, The Alienist, by Caleb Carr. I couldn’t stand it. First person or not, I had to read it. And I’m really glad I did. Lately a lot of books have been thrown against the wall around here for not staying true to their time and place. Kate Manning takes you to Victorian era New York and keeps you there. This is great historical fiction.
Axie Muldoon is an impoverished orphan train rider who learns early and is reminded often to trust no man who says, “Trust me”; who longs to reunite with her lost brother and sister as she promised her dying Mam she would; who eventually takes on the role of a midwife; who reinvents herself as the notorious Madame DeBeausacq (Madame X), performing certain unmentionable procedures for her patients in a time when women had few rights and little respect.
Confession #2: I wasn’t sure I could handle a story about an abortionist. I was afraid it would be overwhelmingly sad. (It wasn’t— it was more about women and 19th century society’s treatment of them— and Manning’s style was tasteful.)
The thing is, I’m pro-life. I’ve seen my own child, a tiny human swimming in and out of view on the ultrasound screen, so lively, so alive – only four weeks past conception. Axie, “confronting the fruits of [her] mercy,” saw something different, a “sprout… not alive yet, no more than a seed is alive, never quick at all.”
What came to mind then was that Bible Mrs. Evans read, the words something like better the miscarriage, for it never sees the sun, nor knows anything, and better is the one who has never existed for it knows not the evil that is. And I reasoned that to deliver it now was only to prevent a death or a doomed orphan, to save my friend, and my friend’s son. Still I shuddered, for the tracing of bone I seen was the outline of what might have been and now wasn’t, because of me, and I know myself after that to have the soul of a midwife, who could live with the complexities.
On the outside, it looks easy for someone like me to be pro-life. I have all the privileges: a home, money, food, a husband, support of extended family and a network of friends.
Inside, I faced the complexities.
When expecting my second child, a doctor advised us to terminate the pregnancy. At four months along, I was thoroughly malnourished. I couldn’t walk. My teeth were breaking apart. My health was so poor, the baby and I both were in danger of dying. I was put on such high doses of drugs known to cause birth defects, we were assured that our child would not be normal.
I chose to keep him.
Then I worried and prayed and “wrestled with the complexities” every single day until his premature cesarean delivery. He was so tiny, so quiet, and I remember crying, frantically, “Is he okay? Is he okay?” over and over again to doctors and assistants who were too busy to answer.
When I finally held him in my arms, I knew. In spite of the complexities, I had chosen what was right for me. For him. He is okay. And he is not normal. He is exceptional.
Why tell all of this in a book review? Because had I been a poor unwed mother 135 years ago, with death for us both a certainty rather than a possibility, I might have chosen differently. I might have sacrificed my unborn to save myself and my firstborn.
Such a powerful idea, suggesting that these decisions are rarely clear cut, that none of us can know or determine what is best for another, and it is never an easy choice, no matter what we decide.
Manning tells a gripping story with many truly beautiful sentences, but more importantly, she puts you in the shoes of another and makes you think.
Highly recommended, no matter which side of the issue you think you’re on.