The Pull of the Stars

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It’s the day before Nurse Julia Power’s 30th birthday in 1918. As the war draws to an end the deadly influenza pandemic sweeps the world. Julia’s early-morning journey to work reveals a city of chronic poverty and suffering, the two catastrophes contributing to system collapse. She arrives at her busy Dublin hospital to find herself left alone in charge of the ‘Maternity/Fever’ ward – a converted supply room – for expectant mothers diagnosed with the “Grippe”. Her work is classic chaos-management: monitoring and treating the illness, managing women in labour, delivering babies and rapid-fire decision-making. Demanding and difficult but as Julia reflects, “I realised something then: no other job would ever satisfy me.” Into this world comes the mysterious Bridie Sweeney, an untrained volunteer of “about 22” of whom Julia muses, “It baffled me that this young woman seemed to lack experience of the most ordinary things – bicycles and thermometers and unborn babies. Still, she was so grateful for everything from skin lotion to ashy tea. And how quickly she got the knack of whatever I taught her.” Bridie is a masterful creation with an instinctive wisdom and compassion born of a cruel upbringing. There is also new doctor Kathleen Lynn, a political activist/’terrorist’ arrested after her crucial role in the deeply unpopular Easter 1916 rebellion. Julia notes with approval both Dr Lynn’s medical abilities and her willingness to trust the judgement of nursing staff – unlike the dismissive male doctors. Both women will quickly change and enrich Julia’s life.Ireland is ruled by Great Britain and the English king, part Catholic theocracy and male-dominated. The hospital is analogous: a hierarchy of clerics and men – even the orderlies treat the nurses with disdain – where the doctors are gods. But change is coming: soon the war will be over, the rebels of 1916 will come to be seen as heroes and Ireland will demand independence. Her interactions with Bridie and Dr Lynn will find Julia challenging the rigid codes of hospital behaviour to the point where she will walk away from the work she loves if she cannot do it more on her terms. The narrative takes place over three consecutive days into which are crammed those profound human experiences – birth, death, love, tragedy, sacrifice and courage. The chapter titles – Red, Brown, Blue, Black – relate to the colour code nurses use for the progress of the pandemic. The writing is effortlessly evocative, particularly the first two chapters relating Julia’s non-stop, frantic roller-coaster first day. There are wonderful lyrical moments such as, “Bridie’s eyes slid away” – describing her attempt to hide a secret.Irish-Canadian Emma Donoghue is a multi-award winning writer and Booker Prize nominee. She had intended this novel to mark the hundred years since the 1918 pandemic, and with exquisite timing it was ready for publication just as COVID-19 arrived. Like Maggie O’Farrell’s wondrous ‘Hamnet’, which is set during an outbreak of the Black Death, it is also superb historical fiction.