The timing of The Pull of the Stars is so perfect as to be suspicious. A novel set in 1918 Dublin, at the peak
of the first wave of the Spanish flu, arriving in late July of 2020 after our first stint of lockdown? Uncanny, almost. But of course Donoghue had conceived the novel two years earlier, during the 2018 centenary commemorations of the 1918 pandemic, and had submitted her final manuscript to her publishers in March of last year–at which point her publishers (Little, Brown/Pan Macmillan) rushed it to early publication, seizing the moment.
But it’s also reductive to simply call this a pandemic novel, given that 1918 was a fraught historical moment with so much more than the flu going on, as Donoghue well knows: it’s two and a half years after the Easter Rising (and less than a year away from the more successful Irish war of independence); it’s also set not even two weeks away from Armistice Day; not only that, February 1918 marked the expansion of voting rights in the UK to women over 30 who met the property requirements.
What a year.
This is the backdrop against which Donoghue sets her story of forty-eight hours in the life of Nurse Julia Power, a compassionate but exhausted maternity nurse on a quarantine ward of a Dublin hospital, fighting to keep her flu-stricken patients–and their unborn babies–alive, despite hospital resources that are stretched to breaking (and on the verge of her thirtieth birthday). For that reason, she’s relieved, rather than exasperated, when inexperienced volunteer Bridie Sweeney turns up to help her: though Bridie knows literally nothing about working on a maternity ward, she is interested, teachable, and has her own deep wells of tenderness for both the patients and for Julia herself. Drifting in and out of this cramped quarantine ward is also Dr. Kathleen Lynn, the novel’s one major character who was an actual historical figure, and whose historicity makes her a figure of notoriety to Julia: Kathleen Lynn was part of the failed Easter Rising in 1916, and she is under suspicion of further seditious activities in 1918 even as she is treating patients, including Julia’s.
The parallels to our own moment are obvious, and, ultimately, not worth belaboring: Donoghue certainly doesn’t, since she didn’t plan for her book to be weirdly timely. Instead, what’s remarkable is what she does zero in on: in some ways, it’s a bit like an episode of Call the Midwife, with several birth sequences (some of them quite harrowing), though Donoghue handles sentimentality with a defter touch than the TV series. She also quietly and not-so-quietly calls out the role that the Catholic Church plays in Irish society through much of the twentieth-century: it turns out Bridie is volunteering because she is a resident orphan at the convent motherhouse, and while working with Julia is hard work, it offers her both more agency and more dignity than the cruelty she faced at the convent growing up. Bridie is profoundly hungry both for affection and for respect, and while Julia can be occasionally impatient (understandably), she sees in Bridie what the nuns have not: a quick intellect, a kindly bedside manner, and a knack for connecting with everyone, even the orderly that Julia dislikes the least, who (of course) has his own hidden reservoirs of pain. There are deeper critiques, too, of how England has allowed Ireland to develop some of the most squalid, poverty-stricken slums in Europe, which stunts the chances of flourishing for the infants whom Julia helps to deliver into the world.
What Donoghue does so well is to weave this commentary into her narrative, and let it play out through Julia’s work rather than any character’s speechifying (with a bit of an exception for Dr. Lynn). Julia is exhausted from both the war (whose effects are embodied in her brother, a veteran with PTSD and selective muteness) and the epidemic, and fears there is no end in sight, not realizing that, in fact, the war is nearly at an end, and everything is about to change for Ireland as a nation. But before that can happen, of course, everything must change for Julia, too, as well as Bridie, and it does, with consequences both tender and heartbreaking.
It’s an absorbing snapshot of three days in late 1918, especially with Donoghue’s knack for creating protagonists with clear, unflinching, sympathetic narrative voices. If elements of it do feel a tiny bit rushed and sudden near the end, well, they are at least partly meant to, and Donoghue does seed the story with hints of the ending as we go, so that we are least prepared for the abrupt climax and the sharp drop into the denouement. Certainly we want the best for Julia at the end, even if we aren’t quite sure–much like Julia herself can’t be–exactly what’s on the other side of the year.