Sunday, July 19, 2020

The Pull of the Stars

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
Little, Brown and Company; 7/21/20
review copy; 304 pages

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue is a very highly recommended visit to a Dublin maternity ward during the 1918 influenza pandemic. This novel will stick with you for years to come.

Nurse Julia Power works at an understaffed hospital in Dublin in maternity where she is given a small cramped former supply room in which to care for and keep in quarantine the expectant mothers who have come down with the new flu. The hospital is overcrowded and everyday there are fewer staff members to look after the patients. Julia has an untrained volunteer, Bridie Sweeney, sent to assist her. Birdie's positive attitude and willingness to help in whatever way she can helps Julia enormously as they are faced with one challenging medical crisis after another. A new doctor has also arrived, Dr. Kathleen Lynn, who is a rumored Sinn Fein Rebel on the run from the police, but a more than capable physician.

Set over just three days in 1918 while WWI is still going on, this is a realistic slice of life during the times. There are three difficult births during these three days and they are described in graphic detail. Donoghue provides carefully researched detailed medical descriptions of the births amid the effects of the pandemic. She doesn't shy away from how the extreme poverty and the societal expectations in Catholic Ireland doom many mothers and children, harming both health and welfare. This is certainly a female centered novel, especially with the focus on pregnancy and childbirth. You will wish the best for Julia and as she works tirelessly through these three long hard days and be thankful that she had Birdie and Dr. Lynn to help her.

Donoghue began writing this novel during the 1918 pandemic’s centennial year, before COVID-19, so all of the details that seem to dovetail with current experiences are simply a recurrence of what happens during a pandemic. It needs to also be pointed out that in the author's notes at the end of the novel, Donoghue discusses the accomplishments of Dr. Kathleen Lynn, who was a real person and doctor of note. This is an incredible novel that will stay with you simply due to the period details and the firmly established setting, time and place. Yes, it can be bleak, dark and harsh, but it also highlights the dedication, compassion and intelligence of a women working under impossible conditions.

The true gem of The Pull of the Stars is the characters that are firmly placed in a very specific historically accurate time and place. This is a character driven novel and almost all of the action all takes place in the one small room. The dedication, personality, character, trials and struggles that Julia and especially Birdie have had to face are portrayed honestly and sorrowfully, but are all indicative of the setting. You will know these women and their character by the end of these three days. There is a romantic subplot toward the end that is best viewed as burgeoning very close friendship that could lead to something in the future in order to give its sudden appearance the context it lacked.

The Pull of the Stars is one of the best novels I've read this year based on how memorable it is. I won't forget it - if only for the detailed medical descriptions of childbirth in this setting.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Little, Brown and Company.

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