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Before the novelist Emma Donoghue gained worldwide renown for her incredible novel Room, I was already a fan of her historical fiction such as Slammerkin and The Sealed Letter. Her brand new novel, The Pull of the Stars, is another well researched and immersive historical novel that concentrates on 3 days in 1918 Dublin. One cover of this novel is a beautiful depiction of an open silver pocket watch with tiny scratched drawings of the moon and stars. This watch belongs to our heroine Nurse Julia Power and those scratches have huge significance to her. Julia works as a midwife and every scratch represents a life lost on her watch; the lost mothers appear as full moons and the crescent moons are lost babies, either still births or those born too soon. The year is significant, because as wounded men return from the battlefield in France, they bring with them a new type of influenza. Named ‘Spanish Flu’, by 1918 it is a global pandemic and by its end it will have killed 6% of the world’s population. It is highly unpredictable, passing through some people with relatively few symptoms and killing others within hours. Due to a shortage of staff, Julia is left in charge of a small ward of pregnant women with flu. Some are full term and will deliver their babies, while others are mid- pregnancy, but affected by severe flu symptoms. Julia can run her ward with great efficiency, but not single handed, and into her world come two outsiders. Volunteer helper Bridie Sweeney is all mischief with bright red hair and a glint in her eye. Dr Kathleen Lynn is an intelligent and competent doctor, but is unfortunately on the run after taking part in an uprising against the King. Together, these three women must shepherd lives in and out of the world under extreme pressure and through their shared experiences lives will change in unexpected ways.
I found the novel so well grounded in time and place, with even the smallest details thought about from public information posters about the flu, to the drugs and methods used during childbirth, to the histories of each character and how their actions are so firmly based within their experiences of that period. Donoghue writes in the acknowledgements that her book is stitched together from facts and imagination. Dr Lynn was a real doctor in this time period, but also an activist and Sinn Fein politician who set up health facilities with her female lover. Barbaric practices such as the symphisiotomy and pubiotomy (unhinging or sawing through the pubic joint) were common in Ireland, even up into the 1980s. These were sometimes conducted without consent, and left women in agony with unstable pelvic joints, but capable of continuing to bear children – the usual recommended medical treatment at the time for women who had more than three Caesareans due to obstructed deliveries was a hysterectomy. This is still a cause for controversy in Ireland, where it is felt that hospitals run by the Catholic Church allowed their own ethos to come before women’s physical health and contemporary medical recommendations. The equipment on the wards, food shortages, porters with disfigurements from the battlefield, men with shellshock and political upheaval create such a rich background that the reader is pulled into era and firmly believes in this situation and these characters.
The Catholic Church looms large in the novel, especially regarding its attitude towards women. We see it in small ways through characters like night nurse Sister Luke and her harsh attitude towards some of the women, for their morals if they’re unwed and for any questioning of the church. She treats Bridie, who was brought up and still lives in a ‘home’ run by the nuns, as a slave who should feel beholden to the church for her upkeep. Decisions within the hospital are made by doctors but with adherence to church teaching and under the watchful eye of the parish priest. The controversy of the Magdalen Laundries is touched upon as one patient is back there for a second time and seen as beyond redemption by the nuns. Bridie fills Julia in on what it was like growing up in one of these institutions: being loaned out to work; physically abused; sexually assaulted by the nuns or worse ‘loaned out’ to a man for a period of time; the open pits where the dead babies were laid with no names and no markers. The belief that the mother’s sins are paid for by the child can be seen in the birth of Barnabas White. His mother was unmarried and he is born with a hare lip. When one of her patients dies and Julia readies her for burial she notices terrible marks where she has been burned and scarred all over her body in the care of the church.
Feminism is a strong theme in the novel, whether Donoghue is showing us what poverty and church are doing to women, or signalling hope for the future in certain characters. There is a feeling that this is both a national and personal turning point for women trying to shape their own future and making choices for themselves. Dr Lynn is a key figure because she is educated, political, professional and also a lesbian. Julia admires the doctor despite her status as a wanted criminal. She can see that female doctors could change obstetrics and women’s lives enormously by making the best and most compassionate medical choices, rather than moral judgements. Julia refers to the male doctor as a ‘butcher’ and the book doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the visceral reality of childbirth in the early 20th Century. These women are ravaged by poverty and sometimes on their twelfth birth, leaving them worn out shadows who can barely stand let alone make autonomous choices. Dr Lynn also represents a different type of sexuality, something that Julia has never thought of before, until Bridie tells her about the doctor’s private life. It opens a door for Julia, where lifelong companionship doesn’t have to come with regular beatings and endless child rearing. Julia is 30, still unmarried and has never been in love, until someone walks into her world and changes how she looks at things.
Bridie is also important because she never lets the darkness of her living situation and past cloud the here and now. She is spontaneous and gives Julia permission to live in the moment. The night they spend talking on the roof, under the stars, is a brief oasis of calm and friendship in a nightmare situation. They learn so much about each other, but also for Julia, who has been quite regimented in her life. Bridie brings out a playfulness and a sense that she can change and make her own choices. Julia marvels that, despite everything that has happened to her and from people she trusted, Bridie is still open and willing to give hope to others. She even has time for the porter, who Julia finds irritatingly cheerful and often inappropriate, and learns he has lost his whole family. Her generosity of spirit prompts Julia to make a bold and life changing choice of her own. Those final tense moments when we don’t know if Julia will be granted that new future she wants, are so hard to read, My heart was in my mouth as I was willing her on.
Donoghue is a master storyteller. Her characterisations, even those of minor characters like Julia’s brother, are so detailed even down to their rich inner lives, Here in 1918, she has laid bare the horrors of a different battlefield, one that women have been fighting in since time began. I was startled by the depiction of a pandemic, whilst in a pandemic. There were so many things about the handling of the pandemic that echoed through the ages. The flimsy suggestions for home cures, jaunty government posters that in one breath downplay the severity of the flu, then in another place blame on the patient for not being strong minded or fit enough to escape infection all resonated with me today. Mainly the book left me astounded by the strength and determination of my fellow women. These women faced a backdrop of poverty, persecution, a world war and a pandemic yet were still bringing new life into the world. Reading these accounts of childbirth, it astounded me that when at their lowest ebb, they pick up their babies and immediately give more: sustenance, nurturing and love. It is also a miracle that in these circumstances, amidst so much death and loss, a moment of love can grow,