On 23rd June Picador published the latest novel from Emma Donoghue, celebrated author of The Wonder and Room. I was lucky enough to get my hands on a proof, a massive thank you goes to Alice May Dewing, and The Pull of the Stars has leapt on to my books of the year list.
The novel is set in Dublin in 1918. It is November and the armistice is actually only days away. But after 4 years of fighting, political unrest and now a crippling Flu pandemic, hope seems out of reach. The novel’s title is in fact taken from the Medieval Italian translation of influenza; influenza delle stelle- ‘the influence of the stars’.
Nurse Julia Power is working long and impossible days on a maternity ward, where expectant mothers who are suffering from the Flu are quarantined. The hospital is understaffed, running low on supplies and Dublin is descending into chaos. Julia travels across town each day, leaving her brother Tim alone, a brother rendered mute by his experiences in the War.
The novel takes place over the course of three days, and centres on Julia and two other key women characters. Doctor Kathleen Lynn is compassionate, controlled and a political revolutionary, hiding from the police under the cover of the hospital. Bridie Sweeney is a volunteer, raised by nuns in a local orphanage. Bridie is quick to learn, intelligent but has lived a life of unspeakable hardship and deprivation.
The three women are thrown together in the most extreme of circumstances. The pandemic is unchecked, the disease is not behaving in the way other influenzas have and medical professionals are learning on the job. The advice to the public is changing daily but the obvious and harsh reality is that the poor of Dublin can not afford to suspend their lives, and the disease continues to thrive. Death is everywhere and often sudden.
Under such circumstances the usual hierarchies and routines of the hospital are hard to maintain. The three central women characters are learning from each other, in all of kinds ways. It is fair to say that the three days depicted here change all the women in ways they would never have imagined.
Here are three women of different social standing, working seemlessly together. Bridie is the conduit through which the reader begins to understand the realities of maternity care and childbirth during this period. She also teaches the assured but socially naïve Julia about the realities of poverty in Dublin at the time.
It is through Bridie that Julia, and indeed the reader, begin to understand the foundations that underpin the poverty of the time. Foundations that often begin and end with the Catholic Church. Bridie’s experiences lay bare the cruelty of the Irish Homes run by the Church, where children weren’t told birth dates or their given names. Where families were separated and their relationships erased and denied. Where twisted morality was used as a pretence to divide families and where unmarried women where made to work off their stays in the homes for years, the time dependent on how many children they had out of wedlock, no mitigating circumstances considered .
All of this knowledge, translated by Bridie to Julia through the circumstances of the women that they care for, is powerful and shocking. It is the connections and bonds that forms between these two women that push their relationship forward into new and unfamiliar territory.
Following the theme of social awareness and learning, Dr Lynn, a revolutionary and member of the Irish Citizen Army, offers Julia a unique inside the Dublin’s political struggle, taking her beyond the propaganda of the nationalist press and offering her an alternative perspective.
Each women offers the other knowledge, experience and an alternative viewpoint. Even in the darkest of times, these are women empowering each other.
This novel is the best kind of historical fiction, where research and detail are woven beautifully into the narrative. It is a book which I learnt from continually, but at no point did the flow of the characters story feel compromised or interrupted.
Of course as this is a novel about a pandemic, all sorts of parrallels can be drawn our current situation. But imagine a pandemic at the end of a war, in a country that is half starved, fighting it’s own internal political and religious struggle, where communities are pitted against each other. Imagine what it would be like to not have the technology allowing loved ones to keep in touch, to not have any government support to enable workers to self isolate and still feed their families. For the poor of Dublin not working equated to certain death for themselves and their families.
But this story is also about another pandemic. The realities of a child bearing at the beginning of the last century in a country that refused to allow any form of family planning. Where large families were the norm and a women’s health came a poor second. Where a potentially viable fetus would be delivered post-mortem regardless of what it chances of survival would be and whether anyone would be able to care for it. Of a time before antibiotics, when the period after a delivery was as perilous if not more so than the birth its self.
This is a story that is told with skill and heart. At a time of great challenge, when the world seemed to be falling into despair and disrepair, the interactions and friendship of these three women, over these three days, are the spark of hope which pulled the world along .
This is a must read.