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The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

Writing.ie | Book Reviews | Historical Fiction | Literary Fiction

By Swirl and Thread

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The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue will be published July 23rd with Picador Books. It is a book described as a ‘new classic of hope and survival against all odds’ and is one that I was very intrigued to read. The Pull of the Stars is Emma Donoghue’s thirteenth novel (and seventeenth book of fiction). Set in Dublin in 1918, a very tumultuous time in a country devastated by war and illness, Emma Donoghue takes the reader back on a VERY vivid journey to a maternity ward in a Dublin hospital.

“I began this novel in October 2018, inspired by the centenary of the Great Flu of 1918-19, and I delivered the final draft to my publishers two days before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. As soon as I began researching the Great Flu, one fact that leapt out at me was that women before, during and for weeks after birth were particularly vulnerable to catching and suffering terrible complications from that virus. I’ve put into this story some of the labour dramas of women I know (and one of my own), and all my gratitude to frontline health workers who see us through our most frightening and transformative experiences.”
– Emma Donoghue

Julia Power is a midwife nursing in a very busy maternity ward that is also doubling up as the fever ward for pregnant women. Staff shortages are rife with so many battles being fought on so many different fronts and chaotic scenes are a daily occurrence both inside and outside the hospital doors. Julia is approaching her thirtieth birthday and is considering her life: past, present and future. Living with her brother Tom, a young man returned shell-shocked from the trenches of The Great War, Julia looks at the world around her, observing the death and destruction of every aspect of everyone’s lives. The 1916 Easter Uprising had left many damaged in both mind and body, a rebellion with an impact that would reverberate through generations of Irish. Fought during the First World War, Ireland and Dublin had seen enough damage, enough destruction, enough death, but then The Spanish Flu banged on the doors of this ravaged island, bringing with it more sorrow, anguish and pain. A health service overloaded, a population on it’s last legs.

‘The hospital’s atmosphere of scrupulous order – which had survived four years of war-time disruption and shortages, and even the Rising’s six days of gunfire and chaos – was finally crumbling under the burden of this epidemic. Staff who fell sick disappeared like pawns from a chessboard. The rest of us made do, worked harder, faster, pulled more than our weight – but it wasn’t enough. This flu was a spanner in the works, clogging the machine. Not just the hospital, I reminded myself – the whole of Dublin. The whole country. As far as I could tell, the whole world….’

Julia Power is a very hard worker, prepared to take on any responsibility that beckons. As the hospital staff get even more stretched, Julia is given the responsibility for her own ward, a role she has never carried out before. Julia steps up to the challenge but soon finds herself very short handed. When volunteer Bridie Sweeney arrives on the ward, she is like an angel sent to assist. A resident of a local mother & baby home, Bridie had suffered badly in life but her enthusiasm on the ward is a shining light for Julia and together they roll up their sleeves and do their best to make the patients more comfortable. Dr Kathleen Lynn, a rebel with a price on her head, also intervenes and the three women become a tight team for a short and very intense period of time.

I am not a medical expert so I have absolutely no idea as to the accuracy of any of the medical procedures alluded to in this novel but I have had two children and I can say that it is the most exciting, frightening and overwhelming experience imaginable. I had my two children in a private hospitable with no outside threat to me or my babies. In The Pull of the Stars, the expectant mothers in Nurse Julia Power’s ward are faced with the most shocking and terrifying ordeal. It is quite an emotional experience reading the graphic descriptions of childbirth, still birth and about those who tragically succumb to this horrendous illness. Through the darkest of days there is light to be found, as the Julia and some of her colleagues navigate their way through these very challenging times with grace and dignity.

The Pull of the Stars is a disturbing yet beautiful read in so many different ways. It is a story of humanity and of compassion but it also a story that highlights some very dark days in history. Right now (July 2020) it is one that will resonate with many as we struggle to cope with COVID19 and the impact it is having on our society as a whole.

Emma Donoghue doesn’t shy away from describing in finer details the traumatic side of childbirth. It is shocking. It is powerful. It is uncomfortable. It is disturbing and it is most definitely not for the squeamish. Aside from the medical descriptions, Emma Donoghue also highlights the way in which women were treated at the time as more or less second-class citizens. Through the eyes of Bridie Sweeney we get an insight into the horrors of life in residential care. Dr Lynn provides an insight into the fight for independence and the reasons why there were those prepared to die for a united and independent Ireland. The combination of all these threads interwoven throughout The Pull of the Stars makes for a very fascinating and quietly compelling read.

‘I’d never believed the future was inscribed for each of us the day we were born. If anything was written in the stars, it was we who joined those dots, at least, and our lives were the writing’

The Pull of the Stars is a very detailed and insightful novel that brings the horrors of those years very much to life for the reader. The fear, the pain, the anguish, the panic, the raw emotions are all palpable off the page. With a very perceptive and empathetic pen, Emma Donoghue has written an emotive and stirring novel, one suffused with a tenderness and a genuine passion.

“I could have set The Pull of the Stars anywhere, but I went for my home town of Dublin partly because Ireland was going through such a fascinating political metamorphosis in those years, and because I wanted to reckon with my country’s complicated history of carers, institutions and motherhood.”
– Emma Donoghue

(c) Swirl and Thread

Pre-order your copy online here.

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