- The Pull of the Stars, by Emma Donoghue. Picador. $32.99.
When a widespread illness characterised by fever, aches and hacking coughs struck medieval Italy, they blamed it on the stars. Influenza delle tesse they called it, the influence of the stars, or as Emma Donoghue calls it in this wonderful novel, The Pull of the Stars. In a note at the end, she tells us that she began the book in 2018, intending it to be an evocation of the Spanish flu of 100 years earlier: the publishers fast-tracked its release at a time when the world is getting to re-learn the meaning of the word "pandemic".
The central character is Nurse Julia Power, working in a busy Dublin hospital less than a dozen days before the end of the Great War. The flu is particularly virulent in the poor and crowded tenements of central Dublin where the story is set, and Julia is responsible for a small maternity ward set up for fever patients. She is on her own until joined by a young girl named Bridie Sweeney, a "volunteer" from one of the nearby Magdalene homes.
The action of the story takes place over three days, during which babies are delivered and some mothers die, to be replaced by others. It also happens to be two years after the Rising of 1916 in Dublin, an event for which neither Nurse Power nor any of the other characters in the story have sympathy - those involved in the action are called terrorists, a word which though not in common usage at that time, described the attitude of many of the citizens.
There are times when a reader may wish to be spared the accounts of treatments undergone by these women as they struggle through the final days of their confinement. No detail is spared and each of the pregnancies is accompanied by different problems, in all cases exacerbated by the cruel fever. In time, however, you follow each twist in the story, each pant and push and scream, with the kind of engrossed interest of a crime story or a tense sporting contest. That the author can keep the reader on tenterhooks without ever needing to go outside the confines of a small hospital ward is a triumph of storytelling.
The feeling that what you read is based on solid research is encouraged by the introduction into the story of a real character from the time, Dr Kathleen Lynn. She had been recently released from post-Rising imprisonment and was still avoiding the edgy authorities. A suffragist, she carried a gun in the citizen army assembled by Labour leader James Connolly and was in charge of one of the buildings taken over during the week-long fighting.
The language at all times is wary post-Victorian prudishness; there are few men in the story to do damage to the careful words selected for shy accuracy without colloquialism. As well as recalling the squalor which was inner-city Dublin at the time, we are reminded also of the appalling persecution of women and children in what were known as Magdalene homes, something which would continue for a further half-century or more.
This is a perfect story, the kind that stays in your mind, less for what happened than for the feeling that you have been an unseen witness to humanity at its most vulnerable and most noble.