Review: The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

Title: The Pull of the Stars

Author: Emma Donoghue

Published: July 28th 2020, Picador

Status: Read July 2020 courtesy PanMacmillan Australia/Netgalley


My Thoughts:

“That’s what influenza means, she said. Influenza delle stelle—the influence of the stars.“

When Emma Donoghue wrote The Pull of the Stars, inspired by the centenary of the influenza pandemic (also known as the Spanish Flu) of 1918 which was responsible for the deaths of up to 50million people worldwide, she had no idea that the book’s release in 2020 would coincide with another deadly global pandemic, COVID-19.

Set in Ireland, The Pull of the Stars is told from the first-person perspective of Julia Power, a thirty year old maternity nurse. It is October of 1918, The Great War is still a month away from its end, and a deadly strain of Influenza is spreading rapidly through the world’s population. In an overcrowded, under-resourced and understaffed Dublin hospital, Julia finds herself in charge of a makeshift ward for pregnant mothers with symptoms of influenza.

At just under 300 pages, The Pull of the Stars is a short, well paced novel. Ominously the chapters are titled Red – Brown – Blue – Black for the visible progression of respiratory distress on the skin as a result of influenza.

“The old world was changed utterly, dying on its feet, and a new one was struggling to be born.”

The events in the book take place over an intense period of just three days, largely within the tiny temporary ward, as Julia battles, sometimes in vain, to preserve the life of the mothers and their babies in her care. As the losses threaten to eclipse the wins, Julia grows increasingly worn and heartsick but a young volunteer from a nearby Convent Home, Bridie Sweeney, quickly proves to be an intuitive and able assistant, and is for Julia, a revelation.

“It occurred to me that in the case of this flu there could be no signing a pact with it; what we waged in hospitals was a war of attrition, a battle over each and every body.”

It is a challenging fight for the medical profession against an enemy they cannot see, armed with little more than the most rudimentary of treatments – carbolic soap, mustard poultices, whiskey and ipecac syrup. Though no one is safe and many die within a few days of Influenza infection, pregnant women are at particular risk, as are their unborn children. Donoghue is quite explicit in both the effects of influenza, and the experience of the labouring mothers, which has the potential to shock.

“Some placed their trust in treacle to ward off this flu, others in rhubarb, as if there had to be one household substance that could save us all. I’d even met fools who credited their safety to the wearing of red.”

Despite the narrowness of the physical setting, and the single narrative perspective, The Pull of the Stars explores a number of issues. Most notably those related to women’s physical and emotional experience of pregnancy, motherhood, marriage, and institutional abuse, particularly among the poorest of women. Donoghue also touches on the political climate of Ireland during the period including the fallout of The Great War and The Easter Rising conflict, and the reaction of the government and populace to the pandemic, which is not unlike our own today. I like to think ‘the wearing of red’ in the quote above is a deliberate swipe at Trump’s MAGA hat-wearing virus deniers.

“The bone man was in the room. I could hear him rattling, snickering.”

I found The Pull of the Stars to be a timely, poignant and compelling historical novel which will resonate with readers today.


Available from PanMacmillan Australia

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I Indiebound

13 thoughts on “Review: The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

  1. Oh glad you liked this one … it sounds like a compelling, timely read … so I think I will get it. Their world & pandemic was even (much) tougher and harsher than what we’re experiencing so it should be eye-opening.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wonderful review, Shelleyrae! I love Donoghue’s writing – but given the subject matter, I simply cannot face it right now. Maybe in a couple of years down the line, when we’ve learnt to live alongside COVID… Thank you for sharing:)

    Liked by 1 person

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