The Pull of the Stars
By Emma Donoghue Picador, 295pp, £16.99
Although The Pull of the Stars opens with nurse Julia Power’s early morning journey to her work in an understaffed hospital, most of this novel takes place in one room. But the room in this novel is very different from the “Room” which made Emma Donoghue’s name, and in it we see a different form of claustrophobia and survival. In The Room we followed a mother’s desperate attempt to bring up her child, the product of kidnap, rape and imprisonment; in this novel the room is a maternity fever ward. Here, nurse Julia struggles not to bring children up, but to bring babies safely into the world and to keep their mothers alive.
In that opening segment, we see what Julia is going to be up against: masked men are spraying gutters, government signs warn citizens to “COVER UP EACH COUGH OR SNEEZE … FOOLS AND TRAITORS SPREAD DISEASE”. This, we soon grasp, is a world of lies and fear. The cost of a tram fare does not go up as “there’d be ructions”, but you cannot travel as far for your penny. A “mass of bodies lean[s] away” from a man with a cough; the coin for the fare is dropped into a tin of carbolic.
Government advice is seen as weak at best – “EAT AN ONION A DAY TO KEEP THE ILLNESS AT BAY” – cruel at its worst – “INFECTION CULLS ONLY THE WEAKEST OF THE HERD” – and scientifically unsound: “Interestingly there’s very little evidence that they [masks] have any protective effect. I scrub my hands and gargle with brandy, and leave the rest to Providence.”
Some carry garlic, some drink, some smother themselves in eucalyptus – anything to keep the flu at bay. Public concerts are cancelled, schools are closed, leading Julia to worry that “if slum children weren’t going to school these days, they couldn’t be getting their free dinners there”. And the signs are posted everywhere: “REFRAIN FROM SHAKING HANDS, LAUGHING, OR CHATTING CLOSELY TOGETHER. IF ONE MUST KISS, DO SO THROUGH A HANDKERCHIEF. SPRINKLE SULPHUR IN THE SHOES. IF IN DOUBT, DON’T STIR OUT.”
Is any of this sounding familiar? Donoghue’s latest book is set in Dublin in 1918, shortly before the end of the First World War, with Dublin in the grip of the Spanish flu. Focusing on three women – a doctor, a nurse and a “volunteer” – Donoghue tells the story of three intense days in the three-bed ward to which expectant mothers with symptoms of the flu are sent to quarantine. Julia feels safe – she has had the flu early on and survived – but that is perhaps the only thread of safety in her world. Her brother has returned from the Front a mute, she is turning 30, and nothing in her world can be counted upon to remain the same.
The Pull of the Stars is not for the faint-hearted. Donoghue’s research into both the effects of the flu and midwifery in the early 20th century is exhaustive, detailed, and brutal. This is not a novel in which a tiny bundle is wrapped in linen and exultantly handed to a doe-eyed young mother; this is a novel of struggle and death and fear. There is no soppiness about birth, the imagery is ugly: “Ita Noonan’s chest strained to rise and fall, her breasts two windfalls rotting on dropped branches.” At times the reader feels like Julia, “adrift in a leaking boat with these strangers, waiting out a storm”.
The novel is partly based on actual events: Dr Kathleen Lynn was a doctor who had been imprisoned for her part in the 1916 Easter Rising and had later served as vice-president of Sinn Fein’s executive. The reactions of the porters and nurses to this controversial figure give the tale historical depth. The volunteer’s story (Bridie) is one of abuse of orphans in Catholic institutions, and the stories of the different women in the tiny ward – many of them slum women, one a protected middle-class housewife – all add further bleak layers to the picture of 1918 Dublin.
But, grim though it is, the novel is deeply compelling. And while it is a picture of fear and death, the portrait of Julia also gives us optimism about the power of human love and duty and adaptability. This is truly a novel for our times.