Emma Donoghue’s publishers might regard it as a mixed blessing that her latest novel is set during the 1918 flu pandemic. While she can’t be faulted for topicality, it seems unlikely that many people will want to spend more time than they need to thinking about a deadly virus. This would be a shame as, for the most part, The Pull of the Stars is a beautifully modulated historical novel. There is also the comfort – for most of us – of how much more likely we all are to survive the current emergency than anyone on the 1918 Dublin maternity fever ward, the setting for Donoghue’s 13th novel. For a small cast, the death count here is high.
As anyone who has read Donoghue’s internationally bestselling novel Room – inspired by the grotesque Josef Fritzl case – will know, she is quick to draw the reader in. After only four short sentences, we can already smell the “dung and blood” of the Dublin streets as nurse Julia Power cycles to work at an understaffed hospital in the city centre. Donoghue’s prose is visceral, and the sense of peril in the cramped, tiny ward is compelling. The first part of the story takes place over 14 hours as women weakened by flu contort themselves in labour. There is tenderness and even beauty amid the horror, as nurses manoeuvre the expectant mothers into bizarre positions to accelerate labour and thus save lives.
Nurse Power has been sent a young volunteer helper for the day, Bridie Sweeney, who is so ignorant she is astonished to feel a baby moving inside its mother’s body: “I thought it only came to life once it was out,” she admits.
Donoghue has abandoned quotation marks in this book. She has said she wanted to give the dialogue a “hallucinatory effect”, and it certainly conjures up Nurse Power’s exhaustion.
Where the novel falls down is in Donoghue’s weakness for lurid melodrama. Attending the postmortem of a mother who died before her baby could be born, Nurse Power gazes at the foetus: “I wept for him, and his mother on the slab, and his five brothers and sisters gone before him, and the seven orphaned ones, and their bereft father.” This may simply have been the state of things, but Donoghue appears at pains to ensure the reader never forgets about grief and suffering. Poverty and flu are not the only cause of pain, of course – the first world war is still going on during the three days of the novel’s action. Nurse Power reflects on war neurosis and “the Englishwoman who lost her mind in an air raid and decapitated her child”. The effect of so much blood and guts is quite deadening, and lessens the impact of the final tragedy in the book. There is also a subplot featuring a doctor on the run from police, but this fails to really go anywhere.
This feels like a wasted opportunity, given that Donoghue is such a capable writer. Early on, an exhausted doctor “held on to the stethoscope around his neck with two hands, as a swaying passenger on a tram might grip an overhead strap”. It is this ability of Donoghue’s to conjure a whole world in a short phrase that makes the book worth reading; one only wishes she could occasionally have exercised a little more restraint.