Books

Emma Donoghue
The Pull of the Stars

During the 1918 influenza pandemic, dissenters cut holes in masks to puff on cigars. In the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, the hypercaffeinated pull masks to chins for takeaway lattes. Perhaps the biggest difference is that in 1918 it was healthy young people who were the worst hit, which would have been especially devastating in a time when it was not unusual for a woman to give birth to a dozen babies and see only half of them make it to adolescence. It was also not uncommon to die in childbirth, and these are the families that our hero of The Pull of the Stars is working to help: she has been left in charge of an ad-hoc maternity fever ward during the 1918 pandemic, when, in words that resonate deeply right now, “the whole world was a machine grinding to a halt”. Those who have read Emma Donoghue’s earlier work will not be surprised to hear that this is a majestic book. Like Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, it is historical fiction at its finest.

When we meet Julia Power in the dark of a very early Dublin morning, she is on her way to another day at work. She rides her bike to the tram, and arrives at the hospital to find one of yesterday’s patients gone. “Mother of five by the age of twenty-four, an underfed daughter of underfed generations, white as paper, red-rimmed eyes, flat bosom, fallen arches, twig limbs with veins that were tangles of blue twine. Eileen Devine had walked along a cliff edge all her adult life, and this flu had only tipped her over.” There is no room for sentimentality in Donoghue’s descriptions and in the way she shapes sentences, but her character portraits, full of small details, are sharply moving.

A former supply room has been converted to hold three beds for pregnant women sick with the flu. In this makeshift arrangement, Julia is helping women deal with an already hazardous time made more dangerous by the pandemic. Expectant mothers are catching the flu at a disturbing rate and Dublin’s infant mortality rate is at 15 per cent.

The novel runs over the course of three days, in which time Julia delivers three babies in the cramped space. There’s no heating, windows must stay open for ventilation, and lives are lost right there. The Matron is down with the flu, the hospital is understaffed because of the pandemic and the war, but when volunteer Bridie Sweeney arrives she soon proves herself invaluable. Bridie knows neither her birthday nor her age: she grew up in a home run by nuns, where she was mistreated, and where hunger forced her to unfortunate behaviours – eating candles is the least of it. The women’s relationship, which grows almost impossibly quickly in the way relationships can in times of crisis, is the beating heart of the novel. Bridie is a study in resilience. She cannot believe her luck to be on the receiving end of a warm meal, a cup of tea and cream for her chilblains. While Bridie takes a crash course in childbirth and nursing, the novel shows the progression of Julia’s political understanding as she learns how dire the situation is for the city’s poor and orphaned children.

Dr Lynn is the hospital’s new doctor, and her reputation precedes her. A suffragette, a socialist, a lesbian, an anarchist, she is based on the real-life Kathleen Lynn, a member of Sinn Féin. As Dr Lynn and Julia work together on an autopsy of a pregnant woman, the doctor says how lucky the two of them are: “To be here, in the middle of this. We’ll never learn more or faster.” Later, she says to Julia: “Oh, but everything’s politics, don’t you know?” Her enthusiasm for modern medicine and progressive politics is infectious, and she and Bridie, crucially, but in very different ways, change Julia’s thinking.

As we have come to expect, Donoghue’s language is consistently evocative, she has an incredibly strong narrative voice, and each character is sketched with a vivid, distinct brush. When an orderly tells Julia, who is turning 30 and suddenly eligible to vote, that women don’t deserve the vote because they don’t pay “the blood tax”, she sees red: “Look around you, Mr Groyne. This is where every nation draws its first breath. Women have been paying the blood tax since time began.” Orderlies Groyne and O’Shea are the Statler and Waldorf comic relief but Groyne’s jokes and songs make Julia cringe for their lack of seriousness – until she finds out that he has a story too, and it is teeming with tragedy. Donoghue illustrates the different way men suffer as a result of war and patriarchy through Julia’s sweet younger brother Tim, who has returned from the war mute with what we now call PTSD.

Donoghue is best known for her best-selling Room but she has a slew of novels, plays and works of literary history under her belt. Too often, historical fiction is crammed with era-specific minutiae as if to prove legitimacy, but Donoghue seamlessly includes such details to utterly inhabit her setting. Julia’s patient needs a blood transfusion and there is no time to lose so Julia, knowing that she is type O and therefore a universal donor, persuades Dr Lynn to do a direct transfusion to the patient. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the Rh factor was discovered and we now know that O-negative is the only universal blood type – critically, this was not known to Julia and Dr Lynn. So much was trial and error, and by necessity they relied heavily on whiskey and chloroform.

Donoghue shows a world where women’s collective and individual strength is required every second of every minute. She exposes the vast amount of blood loss, not to mention actual physical strength, required to do the “home duties”. The Pull of the Stars is achingly entertaining – Call the Midwife turned up to 11 – and a howling rejoinder to the presumption that the blood tax has been exclusively, or even largely, paid by men.

Louise Swinn

Picador, 296pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 22, 2020 as "Emma Donoghue, The Pull of the Stars".

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Reviewer: Louise Swinn