Julia Powell is a nurse in a Dublin Hospital in 1918. Because of staff shortages, she is put in charge of the ward where pregnant women with the flu have been admitted. Over the course of a few days, she tends to these women and their babies as they are born, with only one young volunteer helper, Bridie Sweeney. The story tells of births and deaths, and how Julia, with Bridie’s help, spend their days desperately trying to save lives.
“We could always blame the stars. … That’s what influenza means: influenza delle stelle–the influence of the stars. Medieval Italians thought the illness proved the sky must be governing their fates, that they were quite literally star-crossed. I pictured that: the heavenly bodies trying to fly us like upside-down kites. Or perhaps just yanking on us for their obscure amusement.’
“I noticed just one headline about the flu today, low down on the right: ‘Increase in Reports of Influenza.’ A masterpiece of understatement, as if it were only the reporting that had increased, or perhaps the pandemic was a figment of the collective imagination. I wondered whether it was the newspaper publisher’s decision to play down the danger or if he’d received orders from above.”
This story is told almost minute by minute over three days, immersing the reader in Julia’s life. The style of writing is perfect for drawing readers into Julia’s every moment, so it feels like we’re walking in her shoes, thinking her thoughts. The characters are deftly chosen to present a variety of attitudes that were prevalent in early twentieth century Ireland, and the treatment of hospital patients, pregnant women in particular, at the time of the 1918 Flu Epidemic are fascinating. It is a timely novel, its publication coinciding with the COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020, a pure coincidence for the author who started writing this in 2018 at the 1918 Epidemic’s 100th anniversary. Highly recommended.
The Guardian: “There is nothing cheerful about the situation, and so the novel depends on the voices and relationships of its three central women. They are all – as one would expect from Donoghue – complex, well-developed characters with distinctive voices and lives based on thorough research, vivid in ways that only excellent writing can offer. I found this novel admirable right up to the final chapters, when it veers into a disappointing cliche. I’m trying not to spoil anything, but if you’d like a haunting and finely balanced literary novel in which the plot isn’t suddenly taken over by depressing convention, stop 20 pages before the end.”
Kirkus: “Darkly compelling, illuminated by the light of compassion and tenderness: Donoghue’s best novel since Room (2010).”
NPR: “In doing a deep dive into the miseries and terrors of the past, Donoghue presciently anticipated the miseries and terrors of our present … Reading The Pull of the Stars now is such a disquieting experience — and certainly a very different one than it would’ve been had the novel come earlier.”