REVIEW: MY NOTORIOUS LIFE BY KATE MANNING

MY NOTORIOUS LIFE BY MADAME X

Author: Kate Manning 
Bloomsbury RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan 

Media of My Notorious Life by Madame XRiveting, intelligent and enlightening, My Notorious Life by Madame X held me in its grasp from beginning to end. Conversely, I found it hard to put down and yet at times I simply had to put it down, to breathe deeply, and then pick up where I left off. There were times I shuddered, times when the images were simply too intense … and yet, for every breather I took, I came back for more. Kate Manning’s book is startling both in its subject matter and delivery – it really is an excellent book.

‘In the end, they celebrated. They bragged.
They got me finally, was their feeling.
They said I would take my secrets to the grave.
They should be so lucky.’

The story begins in 1860 when Axie Muldoon, just 13, is sent with her younger sister and brother on the orphan train to Illinois. The Children’s Aid Society sees the move as a rescue mission for children otherwise destined for lives of brutal poverty in New York City, but Axie, unhappy that her mother has been left behind, returns to the city alone and determined to reunite her family one day. After her mother dies in childbirth, Axie is taken in by Mrs Evans, a Manhattan midwife; before long, she is assisting her benefactor in births and other ‘womanly afflictions’. Her desire to learn midwifery principles is strong; over time she learns how to blend formulas for varying ailments, how to prepare women for confinements and how to aid in deliveries of varying difficulties. This desire to learn, prompted in part by her mother’s harrowing (and fatal) experience, has also convinced Axie that having a child is not only dangerous, but incredibly scary; despite her gift for midwifery, her fear is something she also must overcome if she is to find love.

In time, Axie becomes the most successful midwife of her time, building her reputation under the moniker Madame X. However, her help is not sought only for birthing babies. Her practice shows her that women are trapped by rules that forbid contraception; in their desperation, many seek her out hoping for remedies or preventative measures that will limit their pregnancies. Others, equally desperate, seek help to abort pregnancies; doing this does not come easily to Axie, but the more she sees, the more she is convinced that the law and the church is not always right. It is this stance that, abetted by a righteous and crusading official, makes her a figure of increasing controversy; her compassion ignored and devalued, her profession dishonoured, Madame X becomes a woman of notoriety, her every move under intense scrutiny.

Wow. What a book. What an intense, powerful and provocative read. I was blown away by this book for many reasons, not the least the incredible story of a woman rising from the gutter to the glittery mansions of Fifth Avenue. It’s such a confronting book, in so many ways, and at the same time, such an important book. Manning takes readers back to a time when women had very little, or no, choice when it came to pregnancy, childbirth and their own bodies. If they were brave enough to do something, it had to be in secret. Imagine if that was life now. Imagine if women still had no say in how many children they had … we’ve come such a long way, really. What we’ve been given is a shocking and penetrating social document that charts women’s experiences and the determination of some to make a difference. I will add that certain aspects will upset some readers. Without entering into a pro-life/pro-choice debate, I have to say that the scenes dealing with abortions challenged me greatly because the imagery was just so intense. The sadness seeps from the pages into your soul. Be prepared for that.

Axie is a fantastic character – feisty, determined, rough-tongued, perceptive and street-smart. Manning has given her such a strong voice that it was impossible for me not to love her. She’s beautifully written. I loved being part of her development from a smart-mouthed teenager to a strong, compassionate woman with a vulnerable core. This really is her story – other characters pale in comparison. Equally as vivid as the portrait of Axie is the setting. I walked the seedy, dirty streets with Axie, observing the gap between the haves and the have-nots; I watched as she ministered to women in childbirth; I sat beside Axie as she read letters from a sister who was more like a stranger. I winced, cringed, hoped, prayed and crossed my fingers for her as if I was there.

A book with a gothic feel that will inspire debate and is tipped to become a classic, My Notorious Life by Madame X is one I will read again more than once. I highly recommend it for those who enjoy historical fiction, but want something with uncompromising depth and challenge.

Available from good bookstores and Bloomsbury. This uncorrected proof was courtesy of Bloomsbury Australia.