The Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times (The Midwife Trilogy)

by Jennifer Worth

Paperback, 2009




Penguin Books (2009), Edition: Reprint, 340 pages


At the age of twenty-two, Jennifer Worth leaves her comfortable home to move into a convent and become a midwife in post war London's East End slums. The colorful characters she meets while delivering babies all over London - from the plucky, warm-hearted nuns with whom she lives to the woman with twenty-four children who can't speak English, to the prostitutes and dockers of the city's seedier side - illuminate a fascinating time in history.


(667 ratings; 4.1)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Citizenjoyce
From the cover of my edition I thought this would be kind of a fluffy British comedy with a little childbirth thrown in. How pleased I am that I was wrong. Jennifer Worth writes a good history of East Enders in the 1950's that includes discussion of poverty in its various forms from the loving
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families and supportive community of Poplar to the squalor and hopelessness of the condemned bombed out buildings inhabited by prostitutes, pimps and a few left behind family people in Stepney. She demonstrates the activities of a midwife of that time by describing the care of various characters, has a good side story about life in a workhouse, fleshes out the character of a grouchy old midwife-nun and describes horrible odors in a way that makes this reader grimace. As important as Worth's historical accuracy is her emotional accuracy as she confronts people living in poverty and grows from her natural middle class revulsion to an attitude of acceptance. Less successful, to me, was the accommodation she made with religion, but I guess that was a normal outgrowth of the respect for the hard working nuns who trained her. For linguists there's an addendum that describes the difficulties of writing the Cockney dialect. PBS has a good mini-series about the book that does fluff it up and tone down some of Worth's grittiness, and in the interest of not needing subtitles, leaves out the dialect Worth so lovingly describes.
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LibraryThing member London_StJ
Jennifer Worth's memoir of her midwifery training in London in the 1950s is fascinating and entertaining. The narrative device of childbirth and midwifery is used as a great equalizer that allows Worth to examine and describe not just the obstetric practices of post-war England, but housing and
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class, education, personal relationships, and evolving culture. The personalities Worth describes are both bigger than life and entirely natural, and more than once I found a character either strangely familiar, or wishing they were. The conditions of life in the not-too-distant past seem to be from another world, and yet completely sympathetic to a contemporary American reader, as I viewed it through the lens of a mother and supporter of modern midwifery. The Midwife (also titled Call the Midwife) is a joy,.
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LibraryThing member cbl_tn
Some of us are lucky to have defining periods in our lives, a time that forever remains the center and from which we measure the rest of our lives as “before” and “after”. For Jennifer Worth, that time seems to be the 1950s when she worked as a midwife in London's East End while living in a
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nun's convent. This was a transitional period for the community as well. Many of the tenements had been condemned and residents were biding their time until their relocation. Worth recalls the difficulties of adjustment, the primitive working conditions by today's standards, the lessons she absorbed through observation of the nuns and their methods, the occasional interpersonal conflicts that result from living and working in close quarters, and the joy she experienced as she formed deep and lasting friendships.

Readers familiar with the television series based on the books will notice a few small differences between the book and the show. The book itself has an episodic feel, with each chapter describing specific incidents from Worth's experiences. The books and the television series remind me of a much-loved favorite, All Creatures Great and Small. They have similar nostalgic elements that recall a community and a way of life that now exist only in memories. Worth has captured her memories with words that have the power to transport readers to that place and time.
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LibraryThing member DubaiReader
Brilliant, fascinating and hugely readable.

Non fiction is often a slower read than fiction. This book was surely an exception - every time I picked it up I found I had whizzed through another 20 to 30 pages without even realising. It completely engrossed me with its stories of 1950s midwifery and
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the life of that time in the East End of London.

Ms Worth was a young midwife, training under the nuns of Nonnatus House (pseudonym) and travelling around her area of London on a bicycle. Undeterred by rain, ice and even smog, she went to the assistance of the young mothers in one of the poorest suburbs. It was this insight into their living conditions and social interactions that made this book so fascinating.

There are so many wonderful characters in the book - some stay with us throughout, such as the nuns and the other midwives, others are met in passing as we learn their harrowing or heartwarming stories. I don't think I shall ever forget Conchita and her 24 children. Without a word of English, she and her husband Len, who could not speak Spanish, raised a happy brood and were still very much in love. Her tiny premature baby (no 25), no bigger than the palm of her hand was nursed at home when she refused to let him go to hospital. And then there was Mary, a poor abused girl from Ireland who had hoped London would offer her a better life. Like many others, she found herself trapped in prostitution and then pregnant. Ms Worth met her wandering the streets of London and helped her where she could, but her story was not a happy one.
This book is full of such stories, both happy and sad and expertly told.

In the days before the pill families were much larger than today, yet the accomodation was smaller and poorer. The people seemed to have a gritty determination that is found more rarely now and managed to pull through all sorts of struggles.
I'm sure I shall read this again at some point, but meanwhile there are three other similar books by Jennifer Worth which I can't wait to read.
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LibraryThing member lycomayflower
This first volume in the memoir that the BBC TV series of this name is based on is a fascinating, well-told read, though the incidents relayed will be very familiar to anyone who has watched the show. The memoir is perhaps a bit more detailed, though the show certainly gets most of the particulars
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of life, midwifery, and 1950s medicine in. The series and the book organize material differently, and therein probably lies the biggest difference between this source material and the television produced from it: the TV series is a story with a social conscience revolving around characters while the memoir is anecdotal social history less concerned with "what will happen next." In particular, it focuses less on the personal lives of the midwives. I suspect reading the book(s) first and then watching the show would be the more rewarding activity rather than watching and then reading (the show feels a bit like it fleshes out and invitalizes what is already on the page), but the book still has much to offer if one's already watched. Worth tells the stories compellingly, explains things well, and is particularly good at demonstrating how naive or misguided her younger self was without sounding dismissive or self-deprecatory. Recommended.
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LibraryThing member LovingLit
This woman has seen a lot. Being a midwife really gets you in amongst the real lives of people, and it shows with this book. The author went from nursing into midwifery training under the care of Nuns, and even though she wasn't religious, lived in the convent while practicing.

1950s East End
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London was a poor and rough place but her nurses uniform afforded her respect. Just how poor and crowded the area was shocked me. Most families lived packed into small 2 room places, and it was the norm to have at least 5 or 6 kids. Most families kept clean and tidy homes, but descriptions of some who lived in squalor- piles of human waste indoors, flies, half naked dirty children- astounded me.

People couldn't afford to get a doctor for the delivery of a baby, and as mothers grandmothers, aunts and any older woman about could tell you, you didn't really need one. Such was the level of knowledge amongst them all, things were managed at home with the local midwife and GP if needed.

Chapter by chapter Worth reveals the personal stories of the people she encountered in the course of her early career. So often, the stories are sad. Families were destroyed upon the early death of the husband/father, and few options were left for a mother trying to support a large brood of kids, and little or no income and no social security. Alcoholism, prostitution, condemned housing tenements. And then stories of loving and supportive families, sober hard-working, proud men who loved and helped their wives in the home- which was so unheard of then. The mixed bag that is humanity. A fantastic social history.
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LibraryThing member nikkimoz
Fabulous account of life as a midwife in Londons east end in the 1960's. Brutally honest if not shocking although I think as a society we could benefit from returning to some of the old ways. I could not put the book down and it inspired me to read more on the subject. I also enjoyed the tv series
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of the book.
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LibraryThing member welshy72
This book charts some of the career of Jennifer Worth, a midwife in the 1950's. She worked in the East End of London, in the slums at a time when all the tenements were being (or were supposed to be) shut down by the government as being to dangerous to live in. As I had a homebirth earlier this
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year it was interesting the changes that had taken place over the years. All the stories were interesting, they all weren't about midwifery but some general nursing stories as well. A fab book.
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LibraryThing member timswings
While reading it, I felt it as a sort of a testament of youth. Worth describes her admiration of the professional worth of the nuns in midwifery. She starts her training with them in 1953, when she is 22. As assistent to a trained widwife, she assists at the births at home. She describes the
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community of the London Docklands. With the men working in the docks and the women at home raising large families in very bad housing conditions. In the way they coped, you can call it every day heroism. It is a personal story, and as such not the work of an historian. But you can get a good idea about the living conditions in this area in this period so short after the war.
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LibraryThing member lozbeth1
Fascinating memoirs of a 1950s midwife. Heartwarming characters, as well as discussion of medical techniques, this is a page turner from start to finish. My only criticism is that it wasn't longer!
LibraryThing member PennyAnne
A fascinating insight into London's East End in the 1950's. Focused mainly on the practise of midwifery and obstetrics during this period the book also covers the social and economic issues at play in the East End at this time. Although the book concerns a period only 60 years ago I felt the author
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could be describing the Industrial Revolution or mediaeval England rather than relatively modern London. Falling down tenement buildings, shared toilets, 2 room flats for families with dozens of children etc etc - quite an eye opener!
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LibraryThing member Beamis12
Can't believe what hard lives many of these people lived. Such an interesting book, chronicling the life of one Midwife in the 1950's in the East End of London. Dockworkers and their families living in tenements, woman having baby after baby. Another book that makes one glad they live in this
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period of time. These woman had it so hard, trying to feed their families with no indoor plumbing or water and very little money. One old lady who lived in an abandoned building actually had toenails that were 12 inches long and an inch thick, supposedly they are still part of a museum exhibit. Anyway really glad to have read this, to truly appreciate the sisters and midwives who gave these poor people medical attention, they were truly angels of mercy.
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LibraryThing member winterlillies
Call the Midwife first came to my attention when I heard PBS was going to air the BBC series. I wasn’t sure if I’d be interested in a show about midwives in the 1950’s and close friends kept raving about it. I didn’t get around to watching the adaptation until New Year’s Eve and was quite
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surprised at how much I fell in love with the show. Shortly afterwards I borrowed the book from my local library branch.

Jennifer Worth is an engaging storyteller. She decided to write about her experiences in response to an article in the Royal College of Midwives Journal by Terri Coates regarding the underrepresentation of midwives in literature. Coates urged, “a midwife somewhere to do for midwifery what James Herriot did for vets.” Worth took up the challenge and eventually sent her first volume to Coates to read. She writes, “Whoever heard of a midwife as a literary heroine? Yet midwifery is the very stuff of drama. Every child is conceived either in love or lust, is born in pain, followed by joy or sometimes remorse. A midwife is in the thick of it, she sees it all. Why then does she remain a shadowy figure, hidden behind the delivery room door?”

Some do question how much of Worth’s memoir can be accepted as truth. There are several reasons for this. It’s important to note that Worth did change names and perhaps she did it to protect her patients and her friends (although she keeps her real name and uses her maiden name: Jenny Lee). Nonnatus House is where she works as a district nurse and midwife is a pseudonym for the Sisters of St John the Divine in Whitechapel (Worth’s setting is in Poplar in the East End of London). Questions also arise regarding the identity of a midwife and if she actually existed. Worth describes Camilla “Chummy” Cholomondley-Browne as “Six foot two inches tall, with shoulders like a front-row forward and size eleven feet, her parents had spent a fortune trying to make her more feminine, but to no effect.” She said her first impression of her was a “bloke in drag.” Worth’s daughters, however; insist they once saw a photograph of the midwives taken during their mother’s tenure and a woman seen in the photograph fits Chummy’s description, but no Sister of St John’s can recall a midwife with her description or name. Furthermore, no one knows who has this photograph because it has disappeared. Then there’s the story of Sister Evangelina who Worth describes as a nurse who parachuted into German territory during the First World War. Critics are quick to point out the story regarding Sister Evangelina is invented. I wouldn’t necessarily discount what Worth writes as untrue. By World War II parachute schools were being established and I believe France was the first to create a woman’s airborne unit. Perhaps Worth heard about this and by the time she wrote her memoir it was part of her memory as having happened.

For the women who have had children, I salute you. Reading Call the Midwife certainly put things into perspective and her descriptions of living situations in 1950’s East End London sure make you appreciate our present day living. Worth describes in rich detail, midwives getting a call in the middle night and having to use a bicycle to attend patients. Imagine having to travel up 12 miles per a day carrying a bulky (and no doubt heavy) medical box and traveling everywhere via your bike. It’s interesting to see how much the medical field has changed these past 60 years. Worth mentions how much changed with the introduction of the pill, “Women could, for the first time in history, be like men, and enjoy sex for its own sake. In the late 1950s we had eighty to a hundred deliveries a month on our books. In 1963 the number had dropped to four or five a month. Now that is some social change!” I reread this section a few times and had to contemplate for a moment. I wonder what the Sisters thought of the pill? How was it viewed among the poor in the East End?

As a woman living in the 21st century we take a lot for granted. As Worth explains, “In the nineteenth century (and earlier, of course) no poor woman could afford to pay the fee required by a doctor for the delivery of her baby. So she was forced to rely on the services of an untrained, self-taught midwife, or “handywoman” as they were often called. Some may have been quite effective practitioners, but others boasted a frightening mortality rate. In the mid-nineteenth century, maternal mortality amongst the poorest classes stood at around 35-40 per cent, and infant mortality was around 60 per cent. Anything like eclampsia, haemorrhage, or mal-presentation, would mean the inevitable death of the mother. Sometimes these these handywomen would abandon a patient to agony and death if any abnormality developed during labour. There is no doubt that their working practices were insanitary, to say the least, and thereby spread infection, disease and often death.” It definitely makes one appreciate the steps taken to pass England’s Midwives Act, which of course lead to the Royal College of Midwives being created.

No medical knowledge is needed to fully appreciate Worth’s book. She’s very thorough and explains everything; clearly she made it her mission to pay attention to detail. Also she uses the Cockney dialect throughout the book to showcase how the people in the East End talked, but it’s easy to read. There’s a guide to the Cockney dialect and even goes into detail regarding the difficulty to put a dialect into print. Furthermore, there is a detailed glossary, which further explains the medical terminology used.

If you’re a fan of medical shows or are just interested in medical history, I highly recommend Call the Midwife. For everyone else, I do believe you’d enjoy reading this lovely memoir. If you’re wondering how much is changed between the book and the series, I have to say not much. A lot of the patients she mentions feature prominently in the series, however; the book provides much more in-depth information. You’ll be left wanting more and luckily there are three volumes to her memoir.
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LibraryThing member RubyScarlett
What an outstanding memoir. I was expecting a catalog of anecdotes revolving around babies and midwifery, a topic which at first sight doesn't really interest me but I'm quite fond of reading about women's history in general so I thought I'd give it a go. What I did not expect was Jennifer Worth's
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astonishing talent for writing. People who've led interesting lives are few. People who've led interesting lives and are born writers are a rarity. Worth is one of them. This is not only filled to the brim with very rich stories of births, it's also an amazing account of midwifery history. Worth is not only an excellent midwife but she reflects on her practice and often compares what life was in the 50s to what it's like now. This in turn makes for a deeply rewarding book. I learned a lot and I'm so happy I read this, it's a deeply touching, never sentimental memoir that has the knowledge of a history book and the readability of a novel. What a treasure.
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LibraryThing member susiesharp
I was a little thrown at first with this book as I was expecting a straight forward story but what I got was short stories/anecdotes, once I realized that it was easier to enjoy. Some stories are much longer than others like the story of young Mary who is 14 and a prostitute which is one of the
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best stories, really gives you a feel of the tough times. Or the one of the woman giving birth to her 24th child yes even Jenny asked if it was a typo!

I must say though if you get queasy from talk of bodily functions and very graphic details of childbirth and infections you may want to read this one in print so you can skip over these passages. Especially when she talks about the woman’s body odors and I’m not talking just sweat. She also talks a lot about some of the things she hates about her job in a very matter of fact way , she pulls no punches, she also describes the advances being made in midwifery and anti-(pre-for Americans) natal care.

Some of the women you will feel very sorry for, their lives are tough but some of these women will amaze you like the woman I mentioned above Conchita(*sp audio*) with the 24+ kids but she has the best attitude the first time we meet her she is giving birth to her 24th child the second time she is having her 25th and it doesn’t go as planned but she is still an amazing woman. The stories of the mixed race children especially the story of Ted I thought it was great that he accepted this child as his own and loved him anyway. Some of the Nuns were pretty funny too.

Nicola Barber narration is very well done, going from British to Irish to Cockney accents all seamlessly. CD #6 felt like it ended in the middle of a sentence, but the way some of these stories just trail off I could be wrong about that.

I wanted to read this because it is going to be on PBS Masterpiece as I am a Masterpiece geek .It was a good book but not quite the story/plot I expected, will be curious how they make it into more of a storyline than a bunch of shorter stories. I will order the paper book for our local library also. I also see this is the first in a trilogy and hope the rest will soon be available on audio! Especially since this one kind of just trailed off like the rest of the short stories.

4 Stars

I received this audiobook from the Audiobookjukebox Solid Gold Reviewer Program & Highbridge Audio for a fair and unbiased review.
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LibraryThing member jcmontgomery
If you’ve seen a British TV show titled “Call The Midwife”, then you are already familiar with the story of Jennifer Worth. Although the book and series are similar, reading the printed version is always enlightening and this memoir is an eye-opener in many ways.

Set in a time and place that
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seems worlds away for some of us, the basic themes of what Jennifer writes about are ones that anyone with an ounce of empathy or sympathy can understand and feel. She writes in a way that there are very few instances where you realize you’re reading a memoir. I’m not a big fan of non-fiction, but when I read a book like this, I’m reminded that I should keep my options open.

I like the series and I like this memoir even more.

For those who don’t read non-fiction all that much and to those who especially like biographies, I highly recommend The Midwife by Jennifer Worth.
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LibraryThing member kristi17
I really liked the story and all of the characters and the informal but informative tone that the author uses. I can see how this could easily translate to a TV series. I realize that it is only the first book on her experiences by the author but I didn't like how some things were left unresolved
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and that it sort of just ended on a low note. I think that really great books can and should stand on their own, whether or not the story continues after. Since she kept alluding to her one lost love but never beyond that I felt that this book kept me hanging but not enough to immediately jump to the next one. I give it a 4 out of 5 stars.
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LibraryThing member LonelyReader
I love when non-fiction has the story quality of fiction. Worth's stories of her patients, fellow midwives, and nuns were beautifully written and made me feel like I was apart of her life. I read this book not knowing its connection to a PBS show but could picture it playing out like a movie. The
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variety of patients and the short story style kept the book engaging and hard to put down.
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LibraryThing member rexvaughan
This is the first of a trilogy by Jennifer Worth about her experience as a midwife at Nonnatus House in London's East End in the 1950s and the inspiration for the popular BBC series "Call the Midwife." Ms. North writes in absorbing fashion of the colorful characters of the docklands slums. Their
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stories cover the range of human attitudes and behavior, some humorous, some inspiring, some portraying human depravity, but all fascinating.
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LibraryThing member amymahlia
I loved this book. Ms. Worth's writing is very effective in relating post-WWII society of East London and bringing the reader directly into the story. I was unaware of the abject poverty in post-WWII England in the 1950's (no doubt to be found as well in the U.S. at that time) and would have liked
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to think that social policies were more progressive in fairly recent history. This book has made me aware of my naivete. These women were so truly and thoroughly dedicated to their service. I'm glad someone has told their story.
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LibraryThing member eesti23
An enjoyable read about life in London's docklands in the 1950s as a midwife. Some of it was in bits and pieces and I would have loved to seen more photos but overall pretty good.
LibraryThing member JanaRose1
Trained nurse and midwife Jenny works with the poorest of the poor in London’s East End. This story outlines some of her adventures and her memorable patients. I became interested in this book after watching the t.v. show. I wish this book contained more information about the nurses and nun’s
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Jenny worked with. However, I still thought it was a highly enjoyable novel.
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LibraryThing member bookworm12
I read this after falling in love with the show. It's the memoir of a midwife who served East End London during the 1950s. That a subject I never thought I'd be interested, but the stories are incredible. I will say this is one of the few examples of a book that is outshone by its film/TV
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counterpart. The BBC show is just wonderful!
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LibraryThing member tangledthread
A memoir of a nurse/midwife in the East End of London during the 1950's. This was an enjoyable story to listen to in the car. The author shows true affection for the people that she lives and works with an the reader comes to share that affection through the writing.

I enjoyed this enough to
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download the other two books in the trilogy.
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LibraryThing member MarysGirl
I enjoyed this memoir. Worth writes well and compellingly of her time as a midwife in the East End of London in the 1950's. I very much enjoyed the TV series and was interested in how the writers of the show used the original material. Sad, funny, and uplifting, these books are a testament to the
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human spirit as well as an astute history lesson.
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Audie Award (Finalist — 2013)
British Book Award (Shortlist — shortlist — 2009)


Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

340 p.; 5.29 inches


0143116231 / 9780143116233
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