As everyone now knows, the challenges of being a health care worker are exponentially greater during a global pandemic. As Emma Donoghue explains in the author’s note to The Pull of the Stars, her thinly plotted but moving new novel, the centenary of the 1918 flu pandemic inspired her to write this work. She couldn’t have foreseen how relevant this story would feel upon its publication.
The novel takes place over three days in Dublin, from Halloween to All Souls’ Day, when World War I is winding down and the flu is ravaging the population. Nurse Julia Power is a single woman about to turn 30. She lives with her younger brother, Tim, who suffers from war neurosis and has remained mute since his return from the front. One morning, when Julia arrives at the Roman Catholic hospital where she has worked since age 21, she learns that the head of the maternity/fever ward has taken ill. Julia is to serve as acting ward sister in her stead.
In spare prose, Donoghue documents Julia’s harrowing three days. Her patients are pregnant women of various economic backgrounds. Some characters are more fully fleshed out than others, but all suffer from the flu and other complications, much of which Donoghue renders in graphic detail. Among the people assisting Julia is the book’s one real-life figure: Kathleen Lynn, the physician and Sinn Féin activist who was instrumental in the Easter Rebellion of 1916.
The book’s most touching sequences dramatize the budding friendship between Julia and Bridie Sweeney, a volunteer who was raised in a convent and gives her age as “about twenty-two.” The stories of Bridie’s upbringing are among the book’s most devastating passages, as when she tells Julia that punishments at the convent sometimes involved hanging the transgressor by the hair from a coat hook.
At its best, The Pull of the Stars confronts a reality as pertinent today as it was in 1918 Ireland: Some people are part of what Bridie calls “the pipe”—orphanages, reformatories, prisons—whereas others benefit from greater privilege. Donoghue’s novel is a plea for an end to the inequality that pandemics make all the more stark.