Book review: The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

August 8, 2020

This article was written for Annabel & Grace, which is now part of Rest Less.

Book review: The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donaghue
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If you have had enough of reading about pandemics and the flu then this book, The Pull of the Stars, may not be for you. However it is strangely timely that Emma Donoghue has written this book about the Spanish Flu set in a Dublin hospital just over 100 years ago.

It grimly and descriptively foreshadows present-day circumstances as Ireland, still occupied with the First World War, is gripped by this pandemic.

However this is only the backdrop for this story. The heroine is Julia Power, a maternity nurse, trying desperately to save the lives of pregnant mothers and their babies. The risk to their lives is formidable not only because of the flu virus but also because of the lack of modern medicine and the terrible poverty that these women live in.

This is also the story of women’s lack of rights at that time. Julia’s angry rejoinder to an orderly who argues that women shouldn’t be allowed to vote because they “don’t pay the blood tax” that soldiers do. “Look around you,” she snarls, indicating one patient in hard labor and another who has borne a dead baby. “This is where the nation — every nation — draws its first breath. Women have been paying the blood tax since time began.”

Once again Emma Donoghue manages to sum up the situation in one gripping sentence.

This book, The Pull of the Stars, is similar to the author’s previous award-winning book, Room, where there is a limited cast and one main room, in this instance the small Maternity/Fever room of the Dublin hospital. By the end of it I was so grateful for all the modern medicines and knowledge that are medical staff now have particularly with childbirth. However once again, just over 100 years later, a flu virus has brought the world to its knees.

When I read the Author’s Note at the back of the book I discovered that not only was this book based on well-researched fact but one of the characters, Dr. Lynn, was real. She was vice president of Sinn Féin’s executive order and its director of public health. Lynn worked on into her eighties at St. Ultan’s, the children’s hospital she co-founded, campaigning for nutrition, housing and sanitation for her fellow citizens.

The Influenza pandemic of 1918 killed more people than the First World War. Influenza viruses were not identified until 1933 and the first of the flu vaccines that protect so many people today was developed in 1938.

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