The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

The Pull of the Stars is a novel set over three days during 1918 in an Irish maternity ward for flu patients, following the nurse there and the struggle with life and death. Nurse Julia Power finds herself leading the tiny three-bed ward for maternity patients with the flu, with only a new volunteer Bridie Sweeney for help, and a new doctor, Kathleen Lynn, who is on the run from the police. With Ireland under pressure from war and disease as well as divisions and inequality, the small ward sees a microcosm of the situation as birth and death go on, and Julia finds new connections with the newcomers.

It is impossible to read this book right now without thinking of the current situation, especially with all of the government warnings Julia sees and questions of who is wearing face masks and who is still going out to the cinema occurring in the background. What is impressive, however, is that it draws you into the world of the tiny ward and away from these comparisons, bringing the focus that Julia must have to care for these patients without thinking about the wider situation. There are a lot of issues raised in the novel, from the mental trauma of war to the treatment of unmarried mothers and unwanted children in Ireland, but the focus on a few characters, mostly female, gives it a human centre. The relationship between Julia and Bridie, developed over only a few days, is a highlight of the novel, showing that sparks of light can come out of dark situations, albeit briefly.

Due to the subject matter and detailed medical descriptions, some people will find this novel very difficult or not feel able to read it, but it is a gripping and touching look at a tiny example of fighting in a pandemic (and a war) from a single ward, and a wider look at Ireland in 1918. It isn’t a happy novel really, but it shows the hope and strength people have to find and use during difficult times, and also women proving their skills and expertise in these circumstances. It’s not the kind of novel I would’ve picked up if it wasn’t by Emma Donoghue, but it was definitely worth reading.