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The Pull of the Stars

by Emma Donoghue

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Showing 1-5 of 39 (next | show all)
Emma Donoghue's latest novel, The Pull of the Stars, is an amazing coincidence of timing. Written in 2018, the investigation of the pandemic in Dublin in 1818 was conceived long before the eventual publishing date. But now, coming out at the height of our current crisis, its reading becomes more fascinating. Masks were worn, people where advised to stay away from public places, and it affected people in different ways. Written in the first person of Julia Powers, we get glimpse of her life as a maternity ward nurse working with pregnant mothers who have the grippe, as it was called. During these three days leading up to her 30th birthday, she is assigned an assistant, Bridie Sweeney. "She was the pale, freckle-dusted type of redhead, light blue eyes, brows almost invisible. Something childlike about her translucent ears; the one on the left angled a little forward, as if eager to catch every word. Thin coat, broken-down shoes; on an ordinary day, Matron would never have let her in the door."
Their relationship becomes the central focus of the novel. Bridie, who has grown up in the catholic orphanage, gives the author a voice to detail the injustices of that system, while providing the reader with a character not soon forgotten. To nurse Powers, Bridie is "a precious bead winking in a dustbin."
These two also come to know a female doctor named Katherine Lynn, who was in fact a real life Sinn Féin leader who worked to gain Irish independence and promote social reform. Donoghue does an excellent job of combining an interesting retelling of the hardship of the time with the happenstance of what effect one person can have in your life.

Lines from the novel.
Our ground-floor dining rooms had been commandeered as flu wards, so now staff meals were dished up in a windowless square that smelled of furniture polish, porridge, anxiety.

Worn down to the bone. 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 was a saying I’d heard from several patients that struck a chill into my bones: She doesn’t love him unless she gives him twelve. In other countries, women might take discreet measures to avoid this, but in Ireland, such things were not only illegal but unmentionable.

You know, I always say a nurse is like a spoonful of tea leaves. I couldn’t answer in case my words came out in a roar. A hint of a smile for the punch line: Her strength only shows when she’s in hot water.

I sensed the bone man just outside the door. He’d claimed one small life already before any of us had realised, and now he was hovering close by, doing his rattling dance, swinging his smirking skull like a turnip in his bony fingers.

beg your pardon, Doctor? That’s what influenza means, she said. Influenza delle stelle—the influence of the stars. Medieval Italians thought the illness proved that the heavens were governing their fates, that people were quite literally star-crossed.

She didn’t take offence; she looked back at me. Here’s the thing—they die anyway, from poverty rather than bullets. The way this godforsaken island’s misgoverned, it’s mass murder by degrees. If we continue to stand by, none of us will have clean hands.

Novenas? I repeated. As in nine days of prayer? Bridie nodded. People paid the convent to have them said for special intentions. That flabbergasted me, the notion of children praying on an industrial scale, children so hungry they’d eat glue.

Forced March. Pills supplied to soldiers, or anyone who needs to stay awake and sharp. Powdered kola nuts and cocaine.

The human race settles on terms with every plague in the end, the doctor told her. Or a stalemate, at the least. We somehow muddle along, sharing the earth with every form of life. ( )
  novelcommentary | Jan 4, 2021 |
As a nurse working in a busy Dublin hospital during the influenza epidemic, Julia is used to hard work and figuring things out on the fly, but for three days, when too many nurses are out sick, she's the only nurse for a small fever ward for pregnant women and her only help is an untrained, but willing girl from a Catholic orphanage.

Emma Donoghue does such a good job with historical fiction and her novels are always so well-researched. This novel is no exception, digging into what hospitals in Dublin looked like a century ago, the impact the First World War had on the men who were lucky enough to return, the Irish struggle for independence, how Catholic charities treated both unwed mothers and their offspring, and what giving birth looked like, among other things. In the end, the history took precedence over the story, with the majority of the book simply following Julia as she tries to care for the women on her ward as best she can. The final section of the book segues abruptly into Julia's personal life and what might have been an integral part of the story was simply tacked on to the end and felt unlikely, largely because so many huge events happened on top of each other.

This novel is worthwhile for a well-written look at a specific time and place, but if you prefer more story and less detail, this one's not for you. I enjoyed it, but I prefer the novels where Donoghue allows her characters to exist fully as people, although I learned a ton about what a horror giving birth was in Ireland a hundred years ago and there's one particularly vile procedure, called a symphysiotomy, that was in use until the 1980s, because although it caused permanent pain and disability to the woman, it preserved her ability to have more children. If your reaction to that is, "oh, that sounds interesting," read this novel, but if you just want great historical fiction, choose Frog Music or Slammerkin instead. ( )
1 vote RidgewayGirl | Jan 2, 2021 |
Set in 1918 in Ireland as the Spanish flu converges with WWI, this timely novel covers three days in the life of Julia Power, a nurse in the hospital maternity/flu ward. Having had a mild case, she is immune and treating pregnant women with flu-like symptoms. She celebrates her 30th birthday on All Saints day with the unexpected gift of a love interest. The similarities with the global covid pandemic are striking as many succumb to this ravaging disease. There are signs posted urging people not to gather in groups, to wear masks and to socially distance, which are all familiar refrains for us in 2020. Some of her patients die, as do some of the babies. Hospitals are overcrowded and the medical staff is worked to the brink of exhaustion. Julia lives with her brother, Tim, who returned from the war with a psychological impairment that renders him mute.

This is a timely novel well told by the talented Emma Donoghue. There is also the inclusion of an extraordinary true-life person, Dr. Kathleen Lynn, who was instrumental in the creation of a free clinic and a children's hospital. There are inspiring stories of real and fictional history during this historical period. We all owe so much to the health-care workers on the front lines now, as much was owed to them then. ( )
  pdebolt | Dec 27, 2020 |
Emma Donoghue’s startlingly prescient novel, The Pull of the Stars, is set in a Dublin maternity ward during the 1918 influenza pandemic. Specifically, the action takes place over three days beginning on October 31, the day before the novel’s main character, Nurse Julia Power, will turn thirty. Julia’s hospital—ravaged by the effects of the war as well as the worsening pandemic—is impoverished, understaffed and in a perpetual state of crisis (her “ward” is actually a converted supply room with space for three beds reserved for women sick with the flu who are about to give birth). As the novel begins, Julia arrives for her shift to discover that one of her patients has died in the night, and, as the day progresses, Donoghue chillingly evokes the myriad and horrific challenges facing health professionals at a time when a deadly illness of mysterious origin is spreading unchecked through the population via mechanisms that defy understanding. The novel’s dramatic urgency derives from the fact that the virulent respiratory illness makes pregnancy and childbirth even more dangerous than it normally is. Julia’s responsibilities to her patients—to ease their distress and see them safely through a period of physical dependency where any number of things can go wrong—often prove impossible to uphold. Over the course of the three days we see her grapple with as many deaths as births—only rarely do the fortunes of her patients match her hopes for them. As we’ve seen previously in Emma Donoghue’s historical fictions, she does not shy away from depicting the squalid and gory details of her characters’ daily lives. In the Pull of the Stars, childbirth is rendered as a torturous rite of passage, fraught with risk for both mother and child. For Ireland’s typical young mother or working-poor female in 1918, there is little beauty or magic in being pregnant, and none of the romance and glowing promise we find in popular representations. It is, in fact, a dread condition for women who are frequently malnourished and physically depleted from caring for already large families and labouring like slaves from dawn to dusk. More often than anyone would like to admit, it is a death sentence. Julia’s concerns and activities are not limited to the hospital, and her emotional life deepens as the action moves forward. She lives in a flat with her brother Tom, who returned from the war shell-shocked and unable to speak. For Julia, Tom is a source of comfort, but also a source of worry and heartache. In the makeshift Maternity/Fever ward, Julia develops a close and surprising bond with a young volunteer worker, Bridie Sweeney. Nurse Julia does not regard herself as naïve—she is acutely aware that unwholesome living conditions are a prime contributor to the misery her patients endure. Experience has taught her that women’s subservience to men and their forced adherence to rigid religious doctrine exact a huge physical toll. But Bridie’s situation as a boarder at a nearby convent opens Julia's eyes to a whole new world of suffering of which she is ignorant. Julia Power understands that there are limits to her influence. She will never fix the rampant inequities to which she is witness. She knows that she is but a miniscule cog in a massive wheel. But she emerges from her experiences over these three days profoundly altered, newly energized to make a difference, to alleviate suffering, to defy the forces of oppression. Emma Donoghue’s novel is written on an intimate, human scale, but its message is large: that if we can find a way to set aside our differences and accept our shared humanity, it will see us through any crisis. ( )
  icolford | Dec 25, 2020 |
Three days in a maternity ward during the 1918 Pandemic. Nurse Power is the day nurse in a hospital in Dublin Ireland during the 1918-1919 influenza. Difficult to read, these poor women giving birth while sick with the flu. ( )
  janismack | Dec 20, 2020 |
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Still hours of dark to go when I left the house that morning.
She doesn't love him unless she gives him twelve.
Guilt was the sooty air we breathed these days.
It's like a secret code, Bridie Sweeney said with pleasure. Red to brown to blue to black.
It suddenly struck me as perverse that someone was said to have grown up in a home only if she had no real home.
That's what influenza means, she said. Influenza delle stella--the influence if the stars. Medieval Italians thought the illness proved that the heavens were governing their fates, that people were literally star-crossed.
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Dublin, 1918: three days in a maternity ward at the height of the Great Flu. A small world of work, risk, death and unlooked-for love, by the bestselling author of The Wonder and ROOM.

In an Ireland doubly ravaged by war and disease, Nurse Julia Power works at an understaffed hospital in the city center, where expectant mothers who have come down with the terrible new Flu are quarantined together. Into Julia’s regimented world step two outsiders—Doctor Kathleen Lynn, on the run from the police, and a young volunteer helper, Bridie Sweeney.

In the darkness and intensity of this tiny ward, over three days, these women change each other’s lives in unexpected ways. They lose patients to this baffling pandemic, but they also shepherd new life into a fearful world. With tireless tenderness and humanity, carers and mothers alike somehow do their impossible work.
In The Pull of the Stars, Emma Donoghue once again finds the light in the darkness in this new classic of hope and survival against all odds.
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