Touching Distance, by Rebecca Abrams

A hero on the battlefield of birth
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Few subjects divide women as much as childbirth. The happy-clappies who insist it is a natural process rendered painful only by fear are in stark contrast to Rebecca Abrams's observation that it is "one of the riskiest events in a woman's life". I'd like to line up the people who persuade women to do it without an epidural and wrench their teeth out without anaesthetic. In late 18th-century Aberdeen, there was no question that women would do anything other than suffer a home birth; the question was whether they and their babies would survive it. Alexander Gordon may have a beautiful wooden model of the pelvis to persuade midwives to get women onto hands and knees during labour, but they have never heard "vagina" and "rectum" uttered. "He'd make farmyard brutes of good Christian women!" one exclaims.

One by one, women Gordon has helped give birth fall victim to a terrible fever. His flourishing practice is destroyed, as is his marriage. His story is admirably conveyed: Abrams has forged an accomplished novel out of the true story of one of the first medical detectives. Gordon is a doctor of the Middlemarch mould, his hobnailed boots striking sparks off the cobbles just as his new ideas strike sparks off midwives, physicians and burghers. Ambitious, humane but fatally lacking in humility, he is failing to notice his wife's retreat into opium addiction. Gordon works out that the disease follows a pattern, but its cause remains mysterious. When his wife becomes pregnant, the quest takes on a personal edge.

Well-paced, dramatic and absorbing, Touching Distance is not without flaws. Putting dialect into dialogue adds to veracity but slows down narrative flow. A revelation by Gordon's wife feels melodramatic. Its great strength lies not only in its convincing portrait of an unsung hero but of Aberdeen, whose geography, climate and energy are wonderfully conveyed. But it is "the nugget of pure truth" that Gordon's efforts distilled that remains with the reader - and the knowledge that even today, there are women in this country who die, tragically, of puerperal fever and ignorance.