Daughter of the local wise woman has to step up to the plate when Ma falls ill.
For master fantasist Joyce (The Facts of Life, 2003, etc.), the business of keeping traditions alive is not exactly fraught with fairies and spelldust, but it’s a grotty and human-bound affair—and fascinating nonetheless. In a tiny British village in the 1960s, the winds of modernity are upsetting the livelihood of the Cullen women. The elder Cullen, Mammy, is a midwife of near-legendary repute, though her business has been falling off lately due to the National Health Service providing free midwives fully versed in the more soulless modern techniques. After a local girl dies from an abortifacient administered by Mammy, the townspeople turn against her and an attack by a mysterious assailant puts her in the hospital. But while Mammy’s stern, wise, and sarcastic demeanor casts a shadow over the whole story, this is really about her teenaged daughter, Fern, who is forced to take over, in effect, the family business—of midwifery, herbology, small sewing jobs, baking, and caretaking of local secrets—after Mammy is laid up. Joyce has a warm touch with Fern, giving her a tough, antisocial exterior that belies the utter confusion and roiling adolescent agonies that plague her narration. Trying to keep her and Mammy from eviction, figuring out how to continue in Mammy’s footsteps without her around (if she even wants to), dealing with the local hippies and trying (maybe) to lose her virginity—it’s a lot for one girl to handle. Darker shadows unfurl after Mammy imparts to Fern the roster of local secrets she’s been privy to in her profession, and malicious figures begin to gather, trying to ensure that Fern will keep her mouth shut. This is an uncommonly powerful tale about knowledge and the things swept aside in the rush to the future.
Thick with ominous mystery but never sacrificing its characters’ integrity in deference to atmosphere or plot.