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 Women, which 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.
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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.
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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.