The Pull of the Stars

Written by Emma Donoghue
Review by Jasmina Svenne

This novel is set in Dublin during the Halloween of 1918. Nurse Julia Power finds herself solely in charge of a temporary ward in which maternity patients suffering from the so-called Spanish flu are isolated from other patients. Help comes in the unexpected form of Bridie Sweeney, an untrained but cheerful volunteer, prepared to turn her hand to anything, and Dr Kathleen Lynn, whose actions during the 1916 Easter Rising have made her a target for the police. But the disease is new and unpredictable, and not everyone will make it out of the hospital alive.

Set over the course of just three days, Emma Donoghue’s latest novel is an intense snapshot of a small nucleus of characters battling not only against disease, but also against natal complications and poverty. What struck me, however, given how long it usually takes to research and write a novel (albeit a short one in this case) is how prescient this book is and how close the parallels are with the Covid-19 pandemic. We see everything from passengers flinching from someone coughing on the tram to the discussions about the efficacy of wearing masks to the impact of the disease (and the ongoing war) on the economy. Shops and schools are shut and supplies are running short in the hospital, but munitionettes are still making shells.

Donoghue also highlights the grinding poverty that affects most of Julia’s patients, putting them at an even greater disadvantage, and the way the most vulnerable are at the mercy of the implacable Catholic Church. This is exemplified by Bridie, probably the most vivid in a multifaceted cast of characters. Possibly not the most comfortable reading for first-time mothers or anyone a bit squeamish, this is nonetheless a life-affirming book about finding joy, friendship and love even in the bleakest of circumstances.