The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

‘Dublin was a great mouth holed with missing teeth.’

This story is told over a three-day period, in a 1918 Dublin is scarred by both the Great War and the influenza pandemic.  Nurse Julia Power is working at a hospital in the centre of Dublin, on a ward where expectant mothers with influenza are quarantined.  

‘Vita gloriosa vita.  Life, glorious life.’

She arrives at work one morning to learn that she is to be alone on the ward: staff are ill, all wards are short-staffed.  The ward is tiny: there are three beds fitted into a small space. We will meet four pregnant women over these three days, journeying through illness and pregnancy.  Julia will have help: from Doctor Kathleen Lynn and a young volunteer helper, Bridie Sweeney.

Each of these three women has an impact on the others: Julia does the best she can, Bridie learns quickly to anticipate what is needed and Kathleen does her best to provide the medical care needed.  We learn about Julia’s brother, mute after his experiences during the Great War, about Bridie who was brought up in the nearby orphanage run by the nuns, about Kathleen who is wanted by the police because of her involvement with Sinn Féin. And the mothers with their different experiences and expectations.

‘We could always blame the stars.’

I found this novel incredibly moving. It is a reminder that pandemics are not new, and that medicine does not always have all the answers available immediately.  It is also a reminder of the difference that courageous individuals can make.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith