Finnish Lapland is a brutal place. It’s above the Arctic Circle. It’s remote. Until the Russian Revolution and World War II arrived, even the modern world hadn’t touched it much. In Katja Kettu’s The Midwife (translated by David Hackston), we see a level of horror visited up on the Finns and Sami who live there that the history books didn’t prepare us for. In the course of one year, the titular midwife lives through a compressed version of the Finnish war experience.
The midwife, who is only know by the names other people give her like Weird-Eye and Fräulein Schwester (Nurse) and Wild-Eye, never expected to be a wife and mother like the other girls in her village. Not only does she have eyes that don’t line up, she is told that she is barren due to a childhood accident. Instead of bearing children, she helps other women do so, using a mix of local witchcraft and modern medicine taught her by the original midwife. Wild-Eye might have gone on delivering babies if she hadn’t seen Johannes Angelhurst at a checkpoint and become instantly attracted to the SS photographer.
In other hands, The Midwife would have been an ethically questionable romance novel. In Kettu’s hands, however, it quickly becomes a dark tale of trauma, war crimes, and obsession. Wild-Eye pulls strings to be assigned to the medical staff at a prisoner of war camp on the Titovka River. Her “love” for Johannes blinds her to the camp’s real function and she becomes an accessory to murder via unethical medical experiments. Johannes, suffering from post-traumatic stress after witnessing the massacre at Babi Yar is even more blind due to his amnesia and addiction to amphetamines.
It’s a mystery for much of the book how Wild-Eye and Johannes will come together. We know they will, because they take turns narrating the story and addressing their thoughts to each other from some point in their future. We also have excerpts from letters from Wild-Eye’s missing father, who apparently works for both the Nazis and the Russians, to add to the mess the midwife has found herself in.
I enjoyed putting together the fragments of information gleaned from the letters and Wild-Eye and Johannes’s accounts, enjoying the book overall, until the tide turns against the Germans. Johannes loses whatever pull he had with the camp commander, which Wild-Eye was hoping would keep her safe. When Johannes disappears into his drug-fueled delusions, Wild-Eye is taken to the barracks were she is repeatedly sexually assaulted by the camp’s guards. The Midwife fills with shocking sexual violence that will be triggering to a lot of readers. I only kept going because I wanted to see how the plot threads would connect.
The Midwife is a difficult read that may tempt readers because of its setting. I enjoyed the elements of local witchcraft that Wild-Eye swears by and the descriptions of the landscape. Kettu is a skilled writer, able to keep multiple fully-realized threads going and working together. The violence, however, was graphic and misogynistic to a point that almost led me to give up. So, caveat lector.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 11 October 2016.