Dirty Work by Gabriel Weston

Dirty Work

Five words from the blurb: abortion, taboo, confronts, truth, tribunal

Before reading My Notorious Life I don’t think I’d read a book with the central theme of abortion, so it was slightly strange to discover another book, published on exactly the same day, covering the same theme. Is this a strange coincidence, or have we reached a point in time where authors finally feel comfortable talking about this emotive subject?

Two years ago I listened to a Radio 4 adaptation of Gabriel Weston’s memoir, Direct Red, and was very impressed. Dirty Work is much slower in pace, but gives the same wonderful insights into the mind of a doctor. 

The book follows Nancy, a gynaecologist, who finds herself performing abortions. One day a routine termination goes horribly wrong and Nancy must take part in disciplinary proceedings so she and her management can understand what happened.

As I was reading the book I was slightly confused as to its purpose; it was only when I finished the final page that I appreciated how clever it was. The book doesn’t look at arguments for or against abortion, instead it looks at things from an entirely new perspective: that of the abortion provider. It made me feel deep empathy for those who perform abortions as they go from performing life saving gynaecological surgery one minute to termination the next. They often hide their profession from friends and family and face persecution from society. There are no easy answers, but any book that asks such difficult questions is well worth reading. 

Julia’s fond of saying I did my first abortion with my eyes half shut. That I never signed up for the events that dominate my life now. It makes her angry that no one ever sat me down and asked explicitly whether I wanted to learn how to perform a termination. And of course I see her point. It is surprising, with all the namby-pamby talk in the medical world these days, the communication skills this, and cultural diversity that, that no such discussion ever took place.

For a book containing such a disturbing theme the writing was surprisingly quiet. The only section containing a graphic description of abortion was right at the end. This passage was written in italics so could easily be avoided by the squeamish or those who don’t want disturbing images in their head, but I felt this section was extremely important and I’m glad I read it. 

Overall, this is an important, thought provoking book. It asks many difficult questions and I recommend it to anyone who’d like an insight into the mind of a gynaecological surgeon. 


2013 Historical Fiction Recommended books

My Notorious Life by Kate Manning

My Notorious Life by Madame X

Five words from the blurb: poverty, midwife, controversial, trust, downfall

My Notorious Life is the best 2013 release I’ve read so far. It is an atmospheric and engaging story about Axie, a midwife in 19th century New York who begins to perform abortions.

Axie has a difficult start in life. After the death of her mother she is separated from her brother and sister and finds herself working as an apprentice to a midwife. She learns the craft and begins to realise that some women face persecution, and even death, if they continue with a pregnancy. Axie begins her own clinic performing a wide range of midwifery services, but spends some of her time performing secret and controversial acts that prevent or terminate pregnancy.

The wonderful thing about this book is the sensitive way it handles such a difficult subject. It skillfully shows both sides of the abortion argument, leaving the reader to make their own judgement about what is right or wrong. Much of this book is based on historical fact and it is heartbreaking to know that so many women suffered in the ways described within these pages. I think this book will make many people look at abortion in a new light, or at least help them to realise what a difficult choice these women made – with both decisions leaving deep emotional scars for life.

The writing was wonderfully vivid and I loved the way the sights, sounds and smells were described so evocatively that the reader is made to feel as though they are there:

-It is so dark, said the Gentleman when he started up our stairs. I saw the wrinkle of his toffee nose as the smells choked him in the nostrils, the cabbage cooking and the p*** in the vestibule, the chamber pots emptied right off the stair. Mackerel heads and pigeon bones was all rotting, and McGloon’s pig rootled below amongst the peels and oyster shells. The fumes mingled with the odors of us hundred-some souls cramped in there like matches in a box, on four floors, six rooms to a floor. Do the arithmetic and you will see we didn’t have no space to cross ourselves. As for the smell we did not flinch, we was used to it.

If that’s not enough to persuade you to give this book a try then I should also add that all this is rounded off with a satisfying plot, characters you really care about, and fascinating snippets of information about life in 19th century New York. This wonderful book will appeal to a wide range of readers and I can see it becoming a modern classic.

Highly recommended.