When Emma Donoghue, inspired by the centenary of the Great Flu, began writing “The Pull of the Stars” in October 2018, it’s doubtful she could have imagined her novel would be published in the middle of a modern-day pandemic. The reader can be grateful, as true to her form displayed in her internationally bestselling novel “Room”, the initial lines are as captivating as the last, and we are quickly transported into 1918 Dublin, odours and all.
“The Pull of the Stars” follows three days in the life of Nurse Power, a young and extremely capable maternity nurse struggling to keep expectant mothers alive while safely delivering their babies. The format is almost like a theatre production, with the main character in one central location with other characters weaving in and out.
At its core, “The Pull of the Stars” is a poignant social and cultural commentary that builds on a series of contrasts. The contrast between the Catholic poverty-stricken patients, living in tenements and the middle-class Protestant patient with her private nurse waiting at home.
The contrast between the diligent professional female doctor and the jaded male doctors, unsure of their recommendations and untrusted by Nurse Power. The Irish Republicans and those opposed to the 1916 Rising. The poor attitude of the hospital porters and that of the keen runner Bridie.
Through the eyes of Nurse Power, we view a snapshot of Dublin at a pivotal time in European history; the institutions of church, tenement life and poverty, society and class divisions, attitudes towards the war in Europe and the one bubbling in Ireland.
Through the characters of the Fever/Maternity ward Donoghue draws a picture of the society these babies are being born into. A society that turned a blind eye to the cruelties of religious and state institutions, a society at war with itself and seemingly unaware of the seismic shift that is about to take place in Ireland. It is also a resilient society, that not only survives but strives to find light and humour in the darkest of corners.
"The Pull of the Stars" is a truly fascinating read, a wonderful trip back in time and a reminder of the miracle of modern medicine. To quote the character of Dr. Lynn:
“One of these days, even this flu will have run its course……The human race settles on terms with every plague in the end…or a stalemate, at the least. We somehow muddle along, sharing the earth with each new form of life.”
We can take some solace in that notion.
For now, while we wait for our pandemic to run its course, we can pour ourselves a cup of something, put up our feet and disappear into the world of Nurse Power.