Follow The Artsy Reader on

Book Review: Belly Woman by Benjamin Oren Black #TheWriteReads #BlogTour

My dear bookish friends,

I am not sure if I have reviewed a non-fiction book before, but there’s a first time for everything, and here we are! I am so glad that Dave from TheWriteReads brought my attention to this blog tour and book (big thank you, as usual, to Dave, as well as the publisher and author for my ebook and spot on this tour, none of which infuenced my review in any way), because even though it is way out of my usual comfort zone I am more than glad to have read it. Keep on reading to find out why!

About the Book

Hailed as “a must-read for our times” (Aminatta Forna) and “eye-opening, kind, and inspirational” (Adam Kay), Belly Woman tells the story of what happens to pregnant women when a humanitarian catastrophe strikes.

May, 2014. Sierra Leone is ranked the country with the highest death rate of pregnant women in the world. The same month, Ebola crosses in from neighbouring Guinea. Arriving a few weeks later, Dr Benjamin Black finds himself at the centre of an exponential Ebola outbreak. From impossible decisions on the maternity ward to moral dilemmas at the Ebola Treatment Centres: one mistake, one error of judgment, could spell disaster.

An eye-opening work of reportage and advocacy, Belly Woman chronicles the inside journey through an unfolding global health crisis and the struggle to save the lives of young mothers. As Black reckons with the demons of the past, he must try to learn the lessons for a different, more resilient, future.

My Review

To be honest, before going in, I didn’t know what to expect from this book. Or, well, maybe that is not quite right. Looking at the cover and reading the title Belly Woman, I expected this book to be for mothers or pregnant women, both of which I’m not. I was convinced otherwise a few pages in though, and now I think that everyone should read this book. It’s raw, it’s deep, it’s important.

On a more personal level, I have to say I have lost a good bit of trust and hope when it comes to doctors after some disappointing personal experiences, and also experiences linked to the health of my loved ones over the past few years. It had gotten so bad that I had lost a lot of hope in medical professionals who, in some cases, have not treated me / us professionally at all, and while this book doesn’t get rid of these experiences, I was really glad to be let into the brain of a medical doctor for once, and to see the ‘other side’ for once.

Going into this book, I realised that doctors are humans like the rest of us – something that can, I think, be forgotten about quite quickly. I may be guilty of that myself, and I do still think they hold a different position in society, as well as occupations with a lot more responsibility than your average nine to five. However, I found this book to be eye-opening; reading about a doctor’s personal life – they, too, have parents, a family, friends, a home. They, too, have fears and worries and insecurities, and they suffered under epidemics and pandemics such as Ebola and Covid, the initial insecurities and fears connected with them, just as much as the rest of us. More so, perhaps, given all the pressure put on them exactly because they are doctors, the seemingly omniscient, all-knowing gods in white.

I don’t read non-fiction very often, but after reading Belly Woman I expect that to change. We are thrown from the beginning into the doctor’s life, his choice of going to Sierra Leone, where most of the book is set, to help where he can as a much-needed obstetrician and gynaecologist during the 2014 Ebola outbreak. As he arrives there, he is soon performing his first surgery. Reading about this in such vivid detail – something I usually stay away from – was eye-opening, touching, and scary. Being inside the doctor’s head during such hard times, reading about his fears, his worries, his kindness and compassion towards the patients, made me once again realise that doctors are, first and foremost, human too.

What I really liked was the (male) doctor’s self-awareness with his position in society, something I was a bit unsure of going in, but then pleasantly surprised when I read these lines:

I am acutely aware that I am a man in a high-income country writing about maternity care and events in African countries. There is no intention for my voice or perspective to represent or replace anyone else’s, say, a woman from a rural village in Sierra Leone […]. In writing this memoir, I have balanced the risk of being accused of playing the ‘white saviour’. If I have presented myself as that person – possessing a superiority complex, patronizing tone or patriarchal stance – I apologize for my naivety and for any offence caused, but not for recording these events.

I also really appreciated that he was able to empathise with his patients and even their family members. Not only that, I felt – and I hope it is ok for me to say that as a white person – that he was able to empathise with his patients from Sierra Leone – having never been there myself – really well. It was about the people from there, the people who haven’t gotten much experience with medical professionals, especially not during a very new and very scary outbreak of the Ebola virus, where face masks, gloves, goggles and other protective gear suddenly surfaced and had to scare especially more rural and supersticious people a lot.

Her husband is becoming anxious. Why the questions? Why are we not rushing to save his wife and child? He gently places a folded cloth under her head and strokes her face. He brought her to us for help. Her situation is desperate. All he sees are the silhouettes of nurses, midwives and a doctor, conspirational and whispering.

As mentioned above, I am usually not good with illnesses, blood, surgeries and its gory details, and would usually refrain from reading about these things in my free time. However, I am really glad to have read this eye-opening memoir. I did need some breaks in between, but I think that is perfectly fine, especially when it comes to non-fiction. I think it is seldom we as ‘normal mortals’ (for lack of a better word) get the chance to look into a doctor’s head, especially while he is performing surgery. Seeing so much compassion, reading about how hard it was for him, given the new surroundings, different and perhaps worse medical equipment, the new climate, all the new and scary safety measures, to perform these surgeries, was, in a way, very touching. Not a cold and sterile robot, but a feeling, fearing and doubting and worrying human being with compassion.

I’d felt calm as I left maternity, but with each step something inside me trembled. By the time I reached the tukul, I was shaking uncontrollably. […] My nervous system had kicked in and I shivered as if it were winter. I was embarrassed. I wanted to look in control; instead, I was a wreck. […] I began crying, and apologizing for crying. I felt as if my emotions were working independently of me.

When I read fiction like I mostly do, I am very strict when it comes to grammar, spelling and punctuation, especially in traditionally published books. In this case, I have to admit I stumbled a few times over missing or wrongly placed commas; however, for some reason, I didn’t find it as bothersome here – perhaps because it felt like there are much more pressing matters at hand here? Matters of life and death, so what difference do a few wrong commas make?

Belly Woman is an eye-opening and compelling read, a must-read, I would say. It made me once again realise that many in the medical field ARE heroes, but despite all that they do and achieve, they are also – first and foremost – human like you and me. A big thank you, apart from the publisher and TheWriteReads, goes to the author and doctor in question here. I hope this book gets a lot of recognition because it is well-deserved – your work is (and has been) not easy, and society would, quite clearly, tumble without people like you.

5 stars from me, and I hope more people give Belly Woman a chance. What a book!

Thank you all so much for reading, and do let me know if you pick up this book!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Follow The Artsy Reader on