Sunday, October 11, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

 Emma Donoghue writes beautiful novels with unforgettable characters of remarkable depth. But they are depressing books. The Pull of the Stars, the newest release is an immersive look into the life of a nurse in Dublin in 1918, during the Spanish flu epidemic, toward the end of World War I. (If you think things are bad now—and they are—these characters are going through worse.)


Julia Power is a single woman, turning thirty, living in a small apartment with her younger brother who returned from the war unable to speak. While he takes care of the home, she goes to work each day in the Maternity/Fever ward of the hospital. This is a tiny closet of a room for the lying-in of pregnant patients with the flu.

There are not enough doctors or nurses to go around, and Julia finds herself placed in charge of the ward when one of her superiors sickens. She has three critical patients to care for over the course of her next twelve-hour shift. When she asks for help, a volunteer is assigned to her, Bridie Sweeney, a twenty-two-ish young woman who was orphaned and brought up by nuns. Remarkably, the girl is good-natured and thrilled with the chance to work in the maternity ward. She learns quickly, doesn’t complain, and is gentle with the patients. Julia finds herself fascinated by and drawn to Bridie. Over the course of the next couple of days, Julia and the reader learn what a horrific upbringing Bridie had.

Obstetricians are also in short supply. A woman doctor has been hired to help out, Dr. Kathleen Lynn. Dr. Lynn is a Rebel who took place in an armed uprising against the government months earlier and spent time in prison. Rumored to be continuing her rebellious activities, Dr. Lynn is being hunted by the police. Julia is on the opposite side of the political spectrum. All she knows is that the uprising was violent and people died. However, after talking with Dr. Lynn, she comes to understand the viewpoint of the Rebels. While she does not condone the violence, she admires Dr. Lynn’s courage and agrees with the goals.

As Julia cares for the changing roster of patients in her care, she calls upon every bit of experience she’s had and knowledge she has gleaned from watching others, to save the few lives that she can. The descriptions of difficult labors and of some subsequent deaths are not for the faint-hearted. Donoghue does not shy away from graphic details. It makes for gripping, heart-wrenching reading.

It’s difficult to read yet another pandemic/plague book, one that is also saturated with economic injustice and political turmoil. There are a couple of bright spots and a hint of hopefulness, but The Pull of the Stars left me thinking, sadly, that we haven’t made much progress in the last one hundred years.