I suspect that many readers and reviewers will focus on the prescience of Emma Donoghue’s deeply affecting novel, The Pull of the Stars. Because this novel recounts a small slice of life during a global pandemic—there are plenty of references to people ignoring public health warnings about spitting in public and encouraging mask wearing—this book is absolutely a book for this year. But I worry that comments like this will overshadow just how good this book is. As always, Donoghue captures the atmosphere and feelings of what it might be like to be a nurse, on a Dublin maternity ward, while influenza scythes its way through rich and poor alike.
Julia Power is one of the few medical professionals still on their feet at a large city hospital. She’s already had what we call the Spanish flu, so she’s also one of the few people who can also work with the sick without falling ill herself. Because she has experience as a midwife, Julia is assigned to the makeshift Maternity/Fever ward. The Pull of the Stars takes place over two days in the fall of 1918, sometime before the Armistice ended World War I. We watch Julia rise, take the trolley to the hospital, work all day trying to keep women and their babies alive before trudging home to rest and do it all over again.
The flu, like all pandemics, is a leveller. When Julia arrives at the hospital at the beginning of The Pull of the Stars, a well-off Protestant woman sharing the ward with two very poor women. The women come from different types of life, but they’re alike in that they’re pregnant and they have the flu. Doctors have learned that the flu is very hard on pregnant women; it tends to cause premature birth or still birth. So, while Julia fights against the flu without knowing what is causing the illness with little more than obsessive santization with dilute carbolic acid and the help of a friendly, bright young woman from a nearby orphanage, we’re also treated to a grim portrait of Irish obstetrics at the time. The recommendations of one of the (male) doctors had me shuddering. I hoped that this doctor would be incapacitated before he could touch the women in Julia’s ward. Thankfully, Julia has Dr. Kathleen Lynn to work with. (Dr. Lynn was a real historical figure and, by all accounts, a goddamned legend.)
The Pull of the Stars is about life and death. We see how fragile life is, as people fall sick all around and as women labor with very little pain relief. This fragility is deepened by Julia’s sudden friendship with her help, Bridie. Like the men around them who have returned from the French trenches, Julia and Bridie’s friendship is the kind that is forged in harrowing circumstances and will last a lifetime. In contrast to the fleeting intensity of life, death on the Maternity/Fever is an implacable foe. Unfortunately, stubbornness and carbolic acid is little match for the H1N1 influenza A virus, lives of hard work and poverty, and a lack of modern obstetric knowledge.
This last paragraph makes The Pull of the Stars seem relentlessly depressing. Sure, there are depressing moments (kind of a lot), but I loved Bridie’s irrepressible personality and admired Julia’s determination to keep moving forward in spite of everything. This is rather a heroic book. While I would recommend this to readers curious about the time and the place, I would also give it out to readers looking for a story of women’s friendships and strength against impossible odds. Even after all the deaths in this book, I wanted to stand up and cheer the survivors after I finished the last page of The Pull of the Stars.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.