From the blurb:
As full of joy and beauty as it is of pain, and told with the luminous power that has made Ursula Hegi a beloved bestselling author for decades, The Patron Saint of Pregnant Girls is a shattering portrait of marriage and motherhood, and of the ways in which women hold each other up in the face of heartbreak.
This is one of the most unusual books I have read this year. Set on one of the Frisian islands in 1878 against the backdrop of the severe beauty of the North Sea, this beautifully-written book is full of quirky characters and heartbreaking stories of love and loss.
On the day that the Ludwig Circus arrives on the island of Nordstrand all the village comes out to watch its splendid parade. There are Old Women, competing for the title of the oldest living one, there is Lotte and her four children, including baby Wilhelm, there are also pregnant girls from St.Margaret’s Home that takes care of them. All of them witness the horrifying power of the Nordsee as a huge wave, not seen in these places for a hundred years, rises from the depths of the Nordsee and wreaks havoc on their lives. Lotte Jansen loses three of her children and tries to offer the fourth one in exchange for the return of them. Blinded by her grief and despair, she tries to throw baby Wilhelm in the sea. Luckily, the baby is saved by his father Kalle Jansen at the very last moment. The villagers and the circus performers keep looking for the Jansen children for days, but their desperate search is in vain, Hannelore, Barbel and Martin perished in the sea. Eleven year old, heavily pregnant Tilly and Sabine, the circus seamstress and mother of Heike, a grown up woman with a child’s mind, are among those who search for Lotte’s children.
Three mothers: Lotte, Tilli, Sabine
Kalle is Lotte’s childhood sweetheart, her one and only love, devoted husband and soulmate, but even he cannot cope with her grief and severe depression. Kalle decides to leave with the Ludwig travelling circus and take care of sick animals. The Sisters from St.Margaret’s home take care of Lotte and baby Wilhelm who is on the brink on starvation as Lotte lost her milk. The Sisters ask Tilly, who has just given birth to a baby girl only to see her adopted and taken away, to breastfeed Wilhelm. Lotte’s return to life and her child is slow and the nuns are beginning to worry about Tilly’s getting too attached to Wilhelm. Tilly is still a child herself after all. Once her parents found out she got pregnant by her twin brother, they sent her away, having chosen the boy over the girl.
Sabine’s story is equally compelling. Her partner, a circus acrobat and free spirit, left her when she was still pregnant. The circus became her family and everybody pulled in helping Sabine raise Heike. Sabine knows she will always have to take care of her special girl, but what is going to happen to Heike after her death?
Apart from the central story which is Lotte’s struggle to come to terms with her grief and flashbacks that tell us more about Sabine’s life, we also get to know the Old Women with their gossipy conversations, full of humour and friendly compassion. We meet the nuns and learn how they decided to open the Home for pregnant girls and turn it into an art school of a sort. Many of the girls won’t be able to return to their families and will need to earn their living, so learning practical skills of running a household and looking after children may help them secure their employment. Some girls insist on keeping their babies and the nuns respect their choice. Sister Hildegunde and her surreal paintings provided a welcome comic relief that is necessary in a story like this.
Considering that there are also stories of the circus members, we see that Ursula Hegi explores different kinds of families and family ties with great tenderness.
The writing is poetic and dream-like. The descriptions of the severe beauty and power of the North Sea set the tone to the novel and bring to mind myths and legends of the Frisian Islands. Lotte’s mind struggling to cope with the reality of her loss finds solace in the legend of Rungholt, a sunk island which can be seen once a year. Ursula Hegi’s writing is full of quirky and memorable details. Kalle comes back to Lotte and brings her an old zebra to take care of during the winter months. Lotte becomes a midwife who never loses a mother or a baby as if her personal loss was a sacrifice she made to save future lives. Sabine’s circus caravan is full of bees that made the roof of the caravan their home. Sister Hildegunde’s paintings resemble Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of the Early delights…
I found this beautiful, character-driven, complex book impossible to put down. The Patron Saint Of Pregnant Girls with it’s intertwining stories of grief and courage to face life, families and friendships, strength and weakness, daily life and circus, children and old people with their particular brand of wisdom is an unusual, but strangely compelling book. It might not be everybody’s kind of story, but if you like literary fiction with rich imagery that explores human relationships, pick it up. You might find it as fascinating as I did.
Thank you to Edelweiss and Flatiron Books for the ARC provided in exchange for an honest opinion.