Emma Donoghue, the author of the much and deservedly praised “The Room”, seems to have an amazing knack with writing about very small spaces, and the immense amount of activity that may well take place there; there, in this novel, is a small ward in a Dublin Hospital in l9l8, right as World War I is winding down its own horrors, and just as the Spanish flu epidemic/pandemic ravaged what remained of the world at that time. Nurse Julia Power, about to hit her thirtieth birthday, is a highly committed, courageous and hard-working nurse, who cares for pregnant women in her small ward who also have the flu (the word influenza, the reader will learn, comes from a time when medicine believed that the influence (influenza , in Italian) of the stars had something to do with this illness: thus the tile of this ravaging novel, “The Pull of the Stars”.
The novel centers around what Nurse Power has to do in one single day, including following the strictest orders from nuns who actually run the hospital, nuns who represent the repressive history of the Catholic Church in Ireland: the Church’s influence on everyday life in Ireland was more pervasive than in any other country in Europe. Julia Power has three patients, in particular (all different): one, a middle class woman who isn’t sure she wants the baby, a very young (eighteen?) married woman, whom Julia and her able assistant Bridie–sent from the convent to volunteer with Julia–notice is full of bruises from an obviously abusive husband, and a third character, having her second “out of wedlock” baby, herself having been reared in The Convent: such were the rules of The Church, and the novel’s underlying concerns with the “sins” of unwed mothers a brutal subtext of the book. The reader, particularly the male reader, is likely to learn more about childbirth than he’s likely ever to have known; Julia specializes in being a midwife, and has studied her field admirably. She’s called upon, during her long day(s), to utilize techniques that were then experimental, and of the three patients under observation, one baby is lost, and so is one mother, more from the flu than from the pregnancies/births. Doctors are in short supply, and when the historically real Dr. Kathleen Lynn arrives on the scene, Julia finds her fascinating; she’s a rare woman doctor, who’d also been involved in The Irish Troubles (as a rebel). Rarely has a writer integrated a real historical person into a novel with such success as Donoghue does here.
When the (probably twenty -two year old) Bridie shows up to help volunteer with Nurse Julia, it’s clear that she doesn’t know her actual age, since, having been immediately sent to The Convent as a bastard child upon birth, no one will ever tell her the circumstances of her birth, even her age. Bridie has a natural affinity for medicine/nursing, and she and Julia become fast friends, lingering over a cup of soup, even spending an entire night up on the hospital’s roof, where Julia begins to learn of the horrors that the children of unwed mothers have lived with in The Convent: they have been virtual slaves, and even the occasional pittance of money they are forced to earn is taken by The Church; Julia knows that The Church is given money by The Irish Government to care for these children, and realizes that the nuns running the Convent have been stealing, abusing children in all ways thinkable (or unthinkable). We watch as Julia learns the horrors Bridie has lived with (though these horrors haven’t ruined her optimism, faith and hope). But the nun who sent Bridie knew she hasn’t had the flu, so she has no immunity, and, in the end, Bridie will succumb to the flu: Julia’s aware that this act is virtual murder, that offering Bride up “to the system” in the hospital is just the latest and last of the terrors with which Bridie has always lived. Because of the growing fondness between these two women–Julia’s emotional and intellectual growth is part of the novel’s narrative–Julia will offer one great act of rebellion herself as the novel closes, partly because of the influence of Dr. Lynn, as well.
The characters in the novel are almost entirely female, but the few male characters (Julia’s mute older brother, mute because of the PTSD from World War I; one of the hospital orderlies, who seems flippant but, we learn later, has lost his entire family to either war or flu) are brilliantly rendered and help flush out the narrative. The class system of Ireland is exposed through the characters mentioned above, as is the cruelty and vengeance of The Church itself: “The Pull of the Stars” is a very, very powerful novel, a real page-turner, to boot, and one of 2020’s best novels. It’s fast paced, almost impossible to predict, full of life and death (literally) and a growing knowledge that the way things are doesn’t mean they always have to be that way. Julia Power is a proto-feminist as well as a great nurse, great sister, loving friend, all traits that are at odds with the values embedded in the nuns in this novel. “The Pull of the Stars” is thus also a morality play, and a superb one at that. The writing is beautiful, the characters riveting, and the story first rate.