‘We could always blame the stars’

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Emma Donoghue’s latest novel, The Pull of the Stars, is set over three days in Dublin during the 1918 flu pandemic. Its narrator, Julia Power, is a nurse tasked with caring for pregnant women who have come down with influenza, as it’s known that these patients can be hit especially hard by the disease and that it may also lead to early delivery. Overcome with the amount of work, she requests and is sent a volunteer helper, Bridie Sweeney, who seems to know mysteriously little about the world but is very quick to learn. A new doctor is also assigned to oversee the ward: Kathleen Lynn, a real historical figure who was a Sinn Féin politician as well as its director of public health, and had been arrested in the Easter Rising of 1916. Reviewers have stressed how eerily timely The Pull of the Stars is (Donoghue was finishing her final edits on the novel when Covid-19 became a serious concern), but, funnily enough, I found it so immersive that I forgot to make connections between this historical pandemic and our contemporary situation, except in a couple of obvious moments where Julia is reading public health notices that stress keeping away from crowded venues. The power of this novel, for me, wasn’t because it has anything particular to say about Covid-19 but because of how well it works within the very narrow constraints it sets itself.

Unlike many readers, I wasn’t entirely won over by Donoghue’s Room, although I loved some of her earlier work; but, with The Wonder, Akin and now The Pull of the Stars, I think she’s become one of the writers who I’ll always follow with interest. The Pull of the Stars reminded me vividly of Sarah Waters’s The Night Watch[highlight for spoiler] not because of its lesbian content but [end spoiler] because both novelists use precise historical detail to patiently evoke the experience of living during an extraordinary time. While Waters’ WWII-set novel technically covers a number of years, the longest central section is a set-piece that focuses on a single night during the Blitz, and one of the characters is a female ambulance driver dealing with bomb casualties. In the same way, although in a different time and place, Donoghue brings to life the small routines of life on a ward as well as the horrifying stories of Julia’s patients. While I’m not familiar with Irish sources from the early twentieth century, their medical histories reminded me of similar accounts from England, although in that country the particular pressures imposed by Catholicism were largely absent. In 1915, the Women’s Co-Operative Guild published Maternity: Letters From Working Womenwhich collected narratives from English Guild members that graphically describe how they have been worn out by persistent childbearing alongside work and childcare. Donoghue repeats a chilling if potentially apocryphal saying in The Pull of the Stars: She doesn’t love him unless she gives him twelve.’ The Pull of the Stars might seem unnecessarily shocking in its depiction of the suffering of these women, but Maternity indicates that Donoghue is simply drawing from history.

Two of Donoghue’s other narrative choices have come in for criticism from reviewers: because I think that both of these constitute spoilers for the novel, I suggest you skip the next section [marked by two sets of asterisks] unless you want to find out what happened or you have already read the book.

  *               *               *

In the last quarter or so of The Pull of the Stars, Julia finds herself abruptly falling for Bridie. A number of Goodreads reviewers seem to think this came out of nowhere, but I don’t agree; in fact, I thought Donoghue cleverly seeded this twist from the moment that Bridie is introduced, but allowed us to recognise Julia’s feelings just as she clocks them herself. It made sense to me that, given the society she lives in, Julia wouldn’t initially allow herself to register her attraction to Bridie, but what Donoghue does do is make Bridie incredibly attractive to us, the readers, even as we forget that we’re seeing this through Julia’s eyes. This continued to the extent that I started to think that Bridie was being overly idealised; then the penny dropped. Far from being ‘tacked on’, I thought this romantic sub-plot was absolutely necessary for the emotional power of The Pull of the Stars, and key to its central conceit of how we are driven by forces we don’t always understand.

While I was predisposed to like this twist, the ending of The Pull of the Stars uses one of the tropes I usually hate in fiction: a happily childless woman who has never expressed much interest in motherhood before ending up with a baby. Sarah Moss criticised this in her Guardian review, writing that ‘I found this novel admirable right up to the final chapters, when it veers into a disappointing cliche.’ Weirdly enough, however, The Pull of the Stars might be the one novel where this trope worked for me, although I still think the prevalence of it in fiction is a problem. Thinking it over, I felt that the book was so bleak that it had to end with a fragment of hope, and while there were probably other ways to supply that hope, they might not have been as historically plausible (I would have loved to see Julia team up with Kathleen Lynn and her female partner when they opened their free clinic and then a children’s hospital, but this wouldn’t have worked within the tight timeline of the novel). I was also glad that Julia adopted a baby rather than randomly getting pregnant herself, which made the choice seem less about ‘maternal instinct’ and more about trying to break the cycle of abuse she’s witnessed. So I’m giving Donoghue a bit of a pass for this one, especially as she doesn’t have form for resorting to convention.

                      *               *               *

In short: this is a brief novel that works incredibly well, and which has much more to offer than a reflection of the Covid-19 pandemic. Beautiful, moving work by Emma Donoghue.

19 thoughts on “‘We could always blame the stars’

  1. You liked this more than you or I expected you to — always nice when it happens that way round! I think you managed to be so gripped by the story that you didn’t get irked by some of the style choices that bothered me (like the absence of speech marks or the insertion of medical definitions in parentheses). If the Wellcome Prize comes back next year — the statement on their website is really vague, so I’m not holding my breath — this would be a great fiction selection. I agree with you that in general Donoghue’s recent work has been strong, and I prefer it to her older stuff that I’ve tried. Do you know her back catalogue (pre-Room) at all?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know, based on your review plus Sarah Moss’s I really thought I’d have much more mixed feelings! I could see what she was trying to do with the absence of speech marks, I think – it blurs the line between speech and thought in a way that I personally found satisfying and rarely confusing. I didn’t notice the medical terms, they may indeed have irritated me if I had! This would be a fantastic WP pick.

      I’ve read Stir-Fry, Hood (both contemporary) and The Sealed Letter (historical) from Donoghue’s back catalogue. I thought Stir-Fry was outstanding – especially resonant for me because of the coming-out/lesbian content, but it’s also a hugely vivid picture of being a student in Dublin in the late 1980s/early 90s. Hood I didn’t quite get, I’d like to re-read it. The Sealed Letter was good fun but not especially memorable.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Yay! I’m so glad you enjoyed this one as well! I’m totally with you on both of the ‘twists’. The latter one normally bothers me as a trope as well, but within the context of this story, I thought it really worked. Like you said, it felt symbolic of a glimmer of hope amidst suffering, but it also felt less like *spoiler warning* “Oh, now I have a child I feel complete!” and more like an extension of the heroine’s unwavering commitment to her patients, and her instinct to put the care of others above herself.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I skipped the spoilers for now because I’d love to read this soon, but I’ll be interested in reading the rest of your thoughts once I’ve finished. I’m very excited to see that the reasons to read this one extend beyond the Covid parallels! I don’t think I’ve read a Donoghue book since The Wonder and… it is time. Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great review! WW narratives are not my jam and I have a hard time with historical fiction in general, but your review (and Callum’s which I just read) make it seem so good. I was also not a huge fan of Room, so I was hesitant to check out other work from the author, but I just might have to!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Does WW = world war? If so, this is technically set during WW1 but there is very little about the war, so to me it didn’t feel like a WW1 book, if that makes sense.

      Donoghue is a super versatile writer, so her books tend to be very different from each other, and even then I’d say Room is a bit of an outlier – so I wouldn’t be put off her other work!

      Like

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