The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue’s startlingly prescient novel, The Pull of the Stars, is set in a Dublin maternity ward during the 1918 influenza pandemic. Specifically, the action takes place over three days beginning on October 31, the day before the novel’s main character, Nurse Julia Power, will turn thirty.

The hospital where Julia works—ravaged by the effects of the war as well as the worsening pandemic—is impoverished, understaffed and in a perpetual state of crisis (her “ward” is actually a converted supply room with space for three beds reserved for women sick with the flu who are about to give birth). As the novel begins, Julia arrives for her shift to discover that one of her patients has died in the night, and, as the day progresses, Donoghue chillingly evokes the myriad and horrific challenges facing health professionals at a time when a deadly illness of mysterious origin is spreading unchecked through the population via mechanisms that defy understanding. The novel’s dramatic urgency derives from the fact that the virulent respiratory illness makes pregnancy and childbirth even more dangerous than it normally is.

“As we’ve seen previously in Emma Donoghue’s historical fictions, she does not shy away from depicting the squalid and gory details of her characters’ daily lives.”

ian colford

Julia’s responsibilities to her patients—to ease their distress and see them safely through a period of physical dependency where any number of things can go wrong—often prove impossible to uphold. Over the course of the three days, we see her grapple with as many deaths as births—only rarely do the fortunes of her patients match her hopes for them. As we’ve seen previously in Emma Donoghue’s historical fictions, she does not shy away from depicting the squalid and gory details of her characters’ daily lives. In The Pull of the Stars, childbirth is rendered as a torturous rite of passage, fraught with risk for both mother and child. For Ireland’s typical young mother or working-poor female in 1918, there is little beauty or magic in being pregnant, and none of the romance and glowing promise we find in popular representations. It is, in fact, a dread condition for women who are frequently malnourished and physically depleted from caring for already large families and labouring like slaves from dawn to dusk. More often than anyone would like to admit, it is a death sentence.

Julia’s concerns and activities are not limited to the hospital, and her emotional life deepens as the action moves forward. She lives in a flat with her brother Tom, who returned from the war shell-shocked and unable to speak. For Julia, Tom is a source of comfort, but also a source of worry and heartache. In the makeshift Maternity/Fever ward, Julia develops a close and surprising bond with a young volunteer worker, Bridie Sweeney. Nurse Julia does not regard herself as naïve—she is acutely aware that unwholesome living conditions are a prime contributor to the misery her patients endure. Experience has taught her that women’s subservience to men and their forced adherence to rigid religious doctrine exacts a huge physical toll. But Bridie’s situation as a boarder at a nearby convent opens Julia’s eyes to a whole new world of suffering of which she is ignorant.

Julia Power understands that there are limits to her influence. She will never fix the rampant inequities to which she is witness. She knows that she is but a minuscule cog in a massive wheel. But she emerges from her experiences over these three days profoundly altered, newly energized to make a difference, to alleviate suffering, to defy the forces of oppression. Emma Donoghue’s novel is written on an intimate, human scale, but its message is large: that if we can find a way to set our differences aside and accept our shared humanity, it will see us through any crisis.


About the author: Born in Dublin in 1969, EMMA DONOGHUE is an Irish emigrant twice over: she spent eight years in Cambridge, England, before moving to Canada’s London, Ontario. She is best known for her novels, which range from the historical (The WonderSlammerkinLife MaskThe Sealed Letter) to the contemporary (AkinStir-FryHoodLanding). Her international bestseller Room was a New York Times Best Book of 2010 and was a finalist for the Man Booker, Commonwealth and Orange Prizes; her screen adaptation, directed by Lenny Abrahamson, was nominated for four Academy Awards.

  • The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
  • Published July 21st 2020 by HarperAvenue
  • ISBN: 9781443461788
  • 304 pages

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Ian Colford’s short fiction has appeared in Event, Grain, Riddle Fence, The Antigonish Review, The Fiddlehead and other literary publications. His previous books are Evidence, The Crimes of Hector Tomás, Perfect World and The Dark House and Other Stories. His work has been shortlisted for the Thomas H. Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award, the Relit Award, the Journey Prize, and the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. He lives in Halifax.

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