I’ve never been to Istanbul, but I’ve always thought it’s a place I’d like to visit. The intricate minarets, colourful spice markets and bazaars, the rich history of a city that dates back to the fourth century – Istanbul seems the very definition of the word exotic.
As my husband always reminds me, the sights seen by tourists in a strange city are usually nothing like the reality of the place. Any city, especially one as exotic and storied as Istanbul, has many faces, some beautiful and exotic and others dark, shadowy and scarred.
Roberta Rick brings this age-old truth to life in vivid detail in her gripping sequel to the best-seller The Midwife of Venice, which painted the streets of 16th century Venice in striking colour. The Harem Midwife continues the tale of Jewish midwife Hannah Levy, who has left Venice with her husband Isaac to seek their fortunes in the bustling metropolis of Constantinople, what is now modern-day Istanbul.
Hannah and Isaac have left Venice with their precious silkworms, a few treasured belongings, and one more precious secret – their son Matteo. The copper-haired toddler is the baby Hannah rescued in The Midwife of Venice from grasping, avaricious social climbers who wanted the baby’s inheritance for themselves.
Now, Hannah and Isaac are trying to make a go of their silk business, while Hannah has found a new venue to ply her midwifery skills – the cloistered harem of Sultan Murat III. Behind the heavily-guarded walls of the Imperial harem, the Sultan’s many wives and concubines live in splendid luxury. Hannah is one of the privileged few to peek behind the veil of secrecy, called in to help the royal women as they labour to give birth to potential heirs to the throne.
But all is not peaceful and perfect in the royal harem. Political intrigues hide behind every intricately carved corner. The mother of the Sultan, the Valide, seeks to unseat the Sultan’s favourite wife from her powerful position. To accomplish this, she has acquired a beautiful slave girl named Leah, whom she hopes will tempt the Sultan away from his favourite wife. Hannah is summoned to confirm the girl’s virginity, with the promise of riches and royal favour if the seduction should be successful.
The midwife is torn. Like Hannah herself, Leah is a Jew, and little more than a child. Hannah has no wish to see the innocent girl sacrificed to the Sultan’s lecherous lust. On the other hand, with her husband’s silk business failing, Hannah desperately needs the Valide’s royal favour and the wealth that might come along with it.
And Hannah has troubles of her own. Her newly-widowed sister-in-law, Grazia, has arrived from Venice, demanding the return of her dowry which her now-dead moneylender husband lent to Isaac. If the Levys can’t return her dowry within a few months, an archaic Jewish law will make Grazia a second wife to Isaac, threatening Hannah’s happy home. And there’s something strange about Grazia, something that Hannah can’t quite put her finger on, but her intuition tells her that the lovely Grazia is not what she seems to be.
Roberta Rich repeats the tour de force begun in The Midwife of Venice, bringing to brilliant life the crowded bazaars, the tranquil water gardens of the imperial palace, and the humble back alleys of the Jewish sections of the city. Through the eyes of the midwife, witness to women of all stripes and social standing at their most difficult moments, Rich shows the many faces of 16th century Istanbul. Though her ending is a bit contrived, Rich’s tale is satisfying and colourful, as fast-paced and fun a read as her first book.