The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 killed more people than the First World War – about 3 to 6 % of the entire human race died from the disease.
When Emma Donoghue began writing a novel about this pandemic in 2018, inspired by its 100-year anniversary, she didn’t have any clue that, in just a few years time, a modern pandemic of our own would hit. How could she have known that another disease would similarly cripple the world’s health systems, bring economies to their knees and rapidly change the world? So it really was quite spooky that the year her book – The Pull of the Stars – came out, in 2020, we were in the midst of a health crisis of our own! And while I do think that there are some striking parallels between then and now in the novel, in terms of the uncertainties and fear associated with pandemics, the strongest part of the book is actually not its depiction of flu but of birth and birthing practices. It’s set in an early 20th century maternity ward in Dublin, a dangerous and precarious place where, even at the best of times, life and health are fragile things.
I’ve read several other books by Donoghue. She’s probably one of my ‘most read’ writers. I love that she often focuses on historical stories but, like me, doesn’t only write historical fiction. I’ve enjoyed her academic writing and her novels set in the present too. Her most famous book is probably Room, which is a harrowing novel set in the present day and was made into a film a few years back with Brie Larson. I like that Donoghue often writes about queer or lesbian characters and I like that she’s usually got a great sense of voice in her writing, her characters often have really distinctive and vivid voices. I’ve read (to date): Stir-Fry, Kissing the Witch, Slammerkin, Room, Astray (reviewed here for my Madeira Mondays blog series!) and now this one. And I have to say, I think The Pull of the Stars is the best one I’ve read so far.
I wonder if the book really shines because Donoghue is from Ireland and the book is set in Dublin. Of course, it’s set way before she was born and writers don’t have to necessarily write about where they are from, but something about the cadences of the dialogue, the main character’s voice…it all felt so vivid and colorful and ‘real’ in ways I felt some of her other historical fiction has lacked. I just wondered if it might be to do with her background knowledge of this time and place, if these Dublin characters came to her more ‘naturally’ than others? Maybe not. Just a guess! But the characters are all really enjoyable: we have our main character, Julia Power, who is a nurse, about to turn 30 (I, in fact, turn 30 today! It was a funny coincidence as I read this book, because it kept mentioning Julia’s upcoming 30th birthday. It made me feel a special connection to the character.). We also meet Bridie Sweeney, the young inexperienced girl tasked with helping Julia in the maternity ward, when all other staff are sick or away, and we also get a real historical person, Dr. Kathleen Lynn, an Irish revolutionary who took part in the Easter Rising, a badass female doctor and a really interesting, somewhat peripheral, presence in the book. The heart of the book is about Julia and Bridie, but Lynn was a cool addition – a bit of fascinating local history, not really essential to the story, but fun to learn about.
Most of the book takes place in this cramped maternity ward as a series of women from various classes of Irish society and from various religious backgrounds (both Catholic and Protestant) give birth during the pandemic. Some are ill, some become ill, some survive, some die. It’s a tough read if you are squeamish because there’s a fair amount of quite interesting but QUITE specific descriptions of the medical procedures of the time. Lots of harsh chemicals sprayed where you really don’t want them sprayed, lots of blood, a few instances where I actually screamed ‘No!’, such as when one of the male doctors said something like: ‘Nurse, get me the saw.’ It really made me realize how dangerous birth was (and still can be).
Julia was a really credible character for this time/place, as was Bridie. Both have a really believable mix of toughness and warmth. Julia is tough because she’s seen things in the medical ward, has had people die at her hands, but she has to retain this cool veneer to keep her patients calm. It’s a mask that I’m sure people with all sorts of stressful jobs can identify with (I can even identify with it a little as a teacher!). I’m thinking about nurses, flight attendants, etc. If you panic, everyone panics. Bridie, by contrast, seems like a really naive child at the start, someone who knows little about life (she thinks, for instance, that babies are dead inside her mother’s wombs and only become ‘alive’ when they are actually birthed), but gradually it’s revealed that she is more than what she seems. They both effectively dramatize several issues that plagued Irish society at the time (Bridie, for instance, is poor and lives in a work house runs by cruel nuns, and Julia has a brother newly returned from WWI with PTSD), but they manage to be unique characters as well.
The main thing that I didn’t like about the book was small but it bugged me throughout. Donoghue doesn’t use any quotation marks around speech. So instead of reading: ‘Let’s go,’ Dr. Lynn said. It would just read: Let’s go, Dr Lynn said. You find that sometimes in literary fiction, but in this case it bugged me and really didn’t seem necessary. Why forgo quotes? To show that, in their panic, the voices of the people in the ward are blending together? But that wasn’t really the case. Everyone has a distinctive voice. Julia even refers to everyone by both their first and last names in her head. The lack of quotes annoyed me because it would take me a second sometimes to realize who was speaking.
Overall I liked the book and did think it was Donoghue’s strongest, weaving together a lot of different issues from WWI to the pandemic itself to the Irish rebellion to tension between protestants and catholics, to the infamous ‘Magdelene’ houses for ‘fallen’ women (where many women suffered abuse), to queer issues, maternity and a whole lot of stuff in between. Donoghue must have done tons of medical research and that aspect was the most fascinating, but there’s lots to enjoy. I blazed through the book, and while it wasn’t perfect (more like a 7 or 8 out of 10), it was a very well-researched, engaging and thought-provoking read and, as I mentioned, my favorite of her books I’ve read (so far!). I’d recommend it to most anyone, unless you were particularly squeamish about medical stuff (in which case, this isn’t the book for you!). Thanks to my friend Cameo for lending it to me – she knew I liked Donoghue and thought (quite rightly!) that I would enjoy this novel.
Have you read The Pull of the Stars? Do you find yourself drawn to ‘pandemic’ literature or to more escapist things? I can understand the impulse towards both!
Thanks so much for reading and have a great weekend! x
PS Today’s Featured Image is an emergency hospital during the Influenza epidemic in 1918, in Kansas, and the image is from the National Museum of Health and Medicine’s Otis Historical Archives, accessed via Wikimedia.