In Dublin, 1918, it is a time of immense global and social change. Emma Donoghue’s latest novel The Pull of the Stars takes place almost exclusively in a cramped three-bed fever ward in an understaffed hospital. All patients are pregnant and quarantined while the world is racked by war and influenza. Both of these are unpredictable, killing at random, lasting longer than predicted and classless. This is an at times breath-taking, touching and emotional novel that sucks you into a feverish dream so you want to read on and on.
Taking place over three days, Nurse Power arrives for work to find herself temporarily in charge. Donoghue excels at the ordinary detail of Julia’s life, her journey to work, the arbitrary rules of the matron, the needs at home of her war-damaged soldier brother Tim who is now mute. On the day the story stars, Julia’s only help comes from an untrained young volunteer, Bridie McSweeney, who acts as a runner to find doctor or orderly as required. The figure of three recurs – three beds, three days, three key characters. The third, Doctor Kathleen Lynn, is a real person, her history documented. She was arrested during the 1916 Easter Rising and in The Pull of the Stars is wanted by the police as a rebel. Power and McSweeney are Donoghue’s inventions. Every character, major and minor, is touched by the twin enemies of war and flu.
Gradually we fall under the spell of Donoghue’s story as Julia and Bridie attend to the needs of their patients in the room with its handwritten note on the door, Maternity/Fever. As temperatures rise and coughs hack, labour pains rise and fall. Donoghue doesn’t skimp on the detail of labour, this isn’t for the squeamish, but she writes with such skill that makes you care for her patients too.
This novel pulls you into its drama and won’t let you go until the end. The ebb and flow of each patient’s condition, Julia’s never-ending fight to help them despite the lack of support, the joy of birth and grief of death, the irreverence and youth brought into the room by Bridie, the quiet and resolute calm of Doctor Lynn, are woven together to create a micro portrayal in this small room of the world in 1918. And bound into every page is the strength and hope of love. I read this book in two sittings.
Researched and written prior to Covid-19, this book is an eerie glimpse into how the Spanish Flu epidemic ravaged through a world at war a century ago, distracted and ill-equipped to deal with it.
A small grumble – I find the lack of speech marks jarring.
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THE PULL OF THE STARS by @EDonoghueWriter #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-4Ub via @SandraDanby