If you’re trying to avoid thinking about the pandemic, this will NOT be the book for you. Otherwise, it’s another fantastic novel from Emma Donoghue, author of Room and The Wonder. This is a historical novel set in Dublin in 1918 during World War I and the devastating influenza pandemic. Julia Power is a 30-year old nurse in a city hospital; she’s assigned to a ward that treats pregnant women who are infected with the flu. Julia is hard-working and cares about her patients. She lives with her brother, who recently returned from the front, and for psychological reasons can no longer speak.
What happens in this book is mostly what you expect. People suffer and die, and it is ugly. But Donoghue’s well-researched novel really sets the stage and shines a light on this pandemic that no one much talks about. She particularly shines a light on how disproportionately the poor are impacted, particularly women and children. Donoghue writes about the plight of poor young mothers, many of whom are forced to have too many babies, and others who are literally enslaved in Ireland’s system of work homes like the Magdalene laundries.
But there’s hope as well, in the form of a strong, dedicated female doctor (Dr. Katherine Lynn, who was a real person) and Bridie, an earnest young volunteer. And during the course of three days in an overcrowded hospital, Julia learns more about herself – and her country – than she expected.
She murmured, We could always blame the stars.
I 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.
I pictured that, the celestial bodies trying to fly us like upside-down kites. Or perhaps just yanking on us for their obscure amusement.The Pull of the Stars, Emma Donoghue
It’s not light reading, and it won’t take your mind off our current situation. But I couldn’t put it down and I loved the characters. And it was really interesting to see the way people came together to fight the spread of the disease, from dedicated hospital workers to government propaganda (one poster reads, “Would they be dead if they stayed in bed?”). I was particularly surprised to hear how quickly the flu incapacitated and killed people, sometimes in a single day.
This is a book where the action is minimal. There are few characters and the book takes place over just a few days, mostly in one room. And yet Donoghue weaves so many issues into her story. Donoghue is one of the most talented writers around, in my opinion. I highly recommend Room, The Wonder, Astray, and Slammerkin, and she has others I hope to read soon.
Note: I received a complimentary advanced reading copy of this book from NetGalley and publisher Little, Brown and Co. This book published on July 21, 2020.