The Pull of the Stars (2020) – Emma Donoghue

Title:The Pull of the Stars
Author:Emma Donoghue
Publisher/s:Picador/Pan Macmillan
Date of publication:2020
Star rating:⭐⭐⭐⭐
Disclaimer:Pan Macmillan South Africa kindly sent me a copy in exchange for an honest review

“That’s what influenza means, she said. Influenza delle stelle – the influence of the stars. Medieval Italians thought the illness proved that the heavens were governing their fates, that people were quite literally star-crossed.”

Emma Donoghue is an incredibly diverse novelist. This much I know. From the intoxicating claustrophobia and fear in 2010’s Room to the awkward relationship between an elderly man and his great-nephew in 2019’s Akin, Donoghue is really great at creating unbelievable characters and putting them in really difficult situations – with absolute grace.

In The Pull of the Stars, the reader is dropped unceremoniously into the middle of a deadly pandemic, and a war. It is 1918, and Dublin, Ireland (much like the rest of the world) is battling WW2 and a disease that has ravaged through every class structure. The Catholics and the Protestants are also in a battle that has left people angry and afraid, and the church is in a precarious state. In this bleak world Julia Power, a nurse in charge of a tiny, cramped maternity and fever ward has just turned thirty. She’s unmarried and lives with her brother, who came back from the war mute. This novel takes place over three long night shifts in a ward so small the rest of the hospital barely knows it’s there.

Julia finds herself alone and in charge of a small group of very sick and heavily pregnant women. Sent to help her is a young volunteer, Bridie Sweeney, who bounces into Julia’s life and the ward, with an innocence and cheerfulness, that turns into her becoming irreplaceable at a time when most of the hospital staff are off sick. As a nurse there is only so much Julia is able to do, and when the time comes for her patients to give birth, Doctor Kathleen Lynn is called in to assist. Lynn, a new face and an enigma to the rest of the hospital is said to be a radical on the run from the police. She wafts in and out of the ward giving hope to Julia, and creating awe in the young Birdie and together these three women are brought together at a time when there is very little hope and awe to experience.

The patients Julia is responsible for include a young unmarried woman who refuses any kind of painkiller, a first time mother whose husband is prone to beating her and a woman who already has seven children waiting at home, and a dismal job in a factory. The women are all completely beholden to Julia, and have the burden of not only being pregnant in these wretched times, but sick as well. The tiny ward becomes a place both of terrible sorrow, as not all the patients can be saved, and a place of hope and joy, as the woman become mothers. Both Julia and Bridie are swept up in the intensity of emotions, and they do so while running on little sleep and the bleakest of food rations.

“And one of these days, even this flu will have run its course…..Really?…How can you be sure?… The human race settles on terms with every plague in the end…Or a stalemate, at the least. We somehow muddle along, sharing the earth with each new form of life.”

Donoghue’s novel is a reflection on feminist ideals, the living conditions of the poor, religion at the core of Ireland’s rule and the progression of science in the medical profession. The Pull of the Stars also lacks the presence of any significant male characters, while the female characters are endlessly fighting a patriarchal and deeply religious society. This feminist stance is also coupled with the extremely graphic descriptions of birth which are both difficult to digest, and even more difficult to ignore. I suppose one could find these details empowering, as it is essentially the women who are solely responsible for bringing ‘life’ into a time filled mostly with death and confusion.

Though some of Donoghue’s chapters are not easy to process, it is a massive effort to tear yourself away from her extraordinary story-telling. The reader is given only a brief glimpse into Julia, Bridie, and Kathleen’s stories, and yet there is a whole lifetime squeezed into three days. Their time spent with the patients and with each other is drenched with emotion, the forming of friendships, and ultimately a connection that started with proximity and situation, and in the end, became something much more – respect.

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