THE PULL OF THE STARS
BY EMMA DONOGHUE
As in her 2010 novel, 'Room,' Emma Donoghue's latest offering, 'The Pull of the Stars,' is set in a confined space where life and possible death reign together. In 1918 Dublin, a city already ravaged by war and poverty, the Influenza pandemic hit hard, and the story follows the travails of nurse Julia Power as she struggles to provide medical help and comfort to expectant mothers who have contracted the disease and are quarantined in a tiny former supply room in the hospital.
Relief arrives in the form of young volunteer, Bridie Sweeney, a 'freckle-dusted' redheaded 'skinnymalinks,' whose cheerful demeanour provides much-needed lightness to the story. Casting Bridie as an orphan, enables Donoghue to exemplify all that was wrong with the Irish Catholic child care system, where institutions profited from looking after orphans and babies born out of wedlock, and where abuse was rampant.
Similarly, the character of Dr. Kathleen Lynn (a real historical figure), who is on the run from police for her part in Sinn Fein's 1916 uprising, highlights the lack of women physicians and the limited opportunities for women at that time. Lynn's comments have an eerie ring of truth today as she likens the Influenza virus to 'A creature with no malign intention, only a craving to reproduce itself ...'.
The scenes outside the hospital insert the reader into a dirty, dismal place, where workers risk infection as they are crowded together on trams festooned with notices warning, 'Cover up each cough or sneeze ... Fools and traitors spread disease.'. Although much in society has changed since the 1918 Influenza virus ran rampant, the current Coronavirus pandemic shows that those hardest hit are still the marginalized members of so-called civil society, who have had disproportionate rates of job loss, infection, and death.
Donoghue started writing this novel in 2018 to mark the 100th Anniversary of the Influenza pandemic. For me, although reading this book in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic was difficult, it also caused me to recognize that history tends to repeat itself. Donoghue's story is a timely reminder of how seemingly well-ordered societies can be disrupted by unforeseen events. It also emphasizes our good fortune in having more effective tools available now to combat disease. In the current uncertainty surrounding various vaccines, at least we have choice.
Although Donoghue's narrative style was difficult to get used to initially, after a few stumbles I found the story flowed well. As Julia, Bridie, and Dr. Lynn, were the heroes of the novel as they tried to do the best they could in almost impossible circumstances, we don't have to look far to find our own unsung heroes of the current world crisis.
A salutary story for our times and one well worth reading.
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