Irish-Canadian writer Emma Donoghue’s new novel, The Pull of The Stars, is destined to be a hit not just because of Donoghue’s characteristically stellar storytelling, as evidenced in previous bestsellers like Room (2010) and The Wonder (2016), but also because of its astonishingly prescient subject matter: the novel is about the 1918 Great Flu pandemic. In her author’s note, Donoghue points out that she began the novel in 2018, “inspired by the centenary of the great flu,” and submitted her final draft for publication in March of this year just as COVID-19 sent everything into lockdown. Could a novel’s timing be more horribly perfect?
Fear not, though, if you are fed up hearing about our current desperate state of affairs and cannot fathom reading a novel about it. Donoghue’s novel will altogether challenge those feelings. The Pull of The Stars beautifully does what good fiction borrowing from history can do: it allows us to look indirectly at our present, painful circumstances and know, with some relief, that we are perhaps not in such unprecedented times as we may believe. And while the story is told against the broader backdrop of the pandemic and the coming end of WWI, it really is focused, very narrowly, on one woman – Dublin nurse Julia Power – and three days spent in her small corner of a world in chaos.
This small corner is a makeshift maternity ward, formerly a supply room, in an overburdened city hospital, where expectant mothers who have contracted the flu, or grippe as it was known, are sent to be cared for. Julia notes that the special ward was established because “not only were expectant women catching this grippe in alarmingly high numbers, but it was particularly hazardous to them and their babies.” The stalwart Julia spends long hours during her shifts in the tiny room in a state of constant activity, called upon to use every ounce of her considerable knowledge, energy, and skill as her patients progress through the stages of illness, slip in and out of consciousness, give birth to premature or still babies, and in some cases tragically die.
Critically shorthanded, the hospital has had to turn to untrained volunteers to help the nurses, and so Julia finds herself with a poor, orphaned young woman named Bridie Sweeney as an assistant. Bridie is eager to learn, and in the midst of the ward’s commotion, Julia proves a generous and patient teacher, marvelling at her protégé’s fearless efforts in the face of such morbid, bloody work. Together in cramped quarters with scant resources, the two women wage a war of their own against the ravages of the flu and find in each other a fleeting and poignant solace.
Dr. Kathleen Lynn, a 19th century doctor, activist, and member of Ireland’s Sinn Féin party makes a fascinating appearance in The Pull of The Stars as the one historical figure in the novel. New to the hospital, Dr. Lynn is the subject of gossip and speculation, in part because she is one of few female physicians, but also because of her political affiliations. Her rebel status initially worries the more conservative Julia who feels her beliefs challenged, but the doctor’s passionate socialist views on poverty and health begin to open Julia’s mind to the realities of slum life for the very poorest residents of Dublin. As global health crises are wont to do, they show up some of the most egregious social inequities: “Such hypocrisy, the way the authorities preach hygiene to people forced to subsist like rats in a sack.” Frustrated by government inaction on the pandemic, the lack of a vaccine, and the limitations of medicine, Dr. Lynn sounds eerily familiar:
“Here we are in the golden age of medicine – making such great strides against rabies, typhoid fever, diphtheria – and a common or garden influenza is beating us hollow. No, you’re the ones who matter right now. Attentive nurses, I mean – tender loving care, that seems to be all that’s saving lives.”
The Pull of The Stars is Donoghue’s fervent acknowledgement of this life-saving tender loving care provided by healthcare workers, who just like the undaunted Julia show up to work every day under some of the worst conditions to care for their patients. Over several extended passages, she meticulously describes the challenging medical complications that Julia confronts and the procedures she heroically performs. All of the novel’s action happens within the confines of the tiny maternity ward – a whole world unto itself – confirming Donoghue’s mastery of seemingly small interior scenes packed with granular detail, powerful momentum, and plenty of suspense.
The Pull of The Stars
By Emma Donoghue
Little, Brown and Company
Published July 21, 2020
Dana Hansen is a writer, editor, reviewer, and professor in the English Department at Humber College in Toronto, Ontario. Her writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Quill & Quire, Literary Review of Canada, The Winnipeg Review, France’s Books magazine, Australia's Westerley magazine, and elsewhere. She lives in Waterdown, Ontario, and is the editor-in-chief of the Hamilton Review of Books.