“That’s what influenza means, she said. Influenza delle stelle—the influence of the stars. Medieval Italians thought the illness proved that the heavens were governing their fates, that people were quite literally star-crossed.”
― Emma Donoghue, The Pull of the Stars
The Pull of the Stars is set in Ireland, 1918, devastated by both war and the Influenza pandemic. Julia, our protagonist, has survived the flu, and is now working as a midwife in an understaffed hospital in a desperate makeshift ward caring for pregnant women presenting with flu symptoms. Into her ward enter Dr Kathleen Lynn, one of a handful of female Doctors in the country and notorious for her involvement in the Irish Women’s Suffrage and Nationalist movement and Bridie, an inexperienced volunteer eager to help.
The book is set over a course of three days, and the writing loaded with details of life, and death, in the ward. It starts off a little slow as the scene is set, and the characters are introduced. The story is told around the Flu Pandemic, and all the details of masks, isolation periods and contagious coughs feel eerily contemporary. As it progresses, it becomes more of a social commentary into the lives of the poor and the sacrifices, particularly by women at the turn of the century. The pace of the story changes in the final section of the book and it is hard to not be affected by the ending. Emma does not hold back in her criticism of the Church and the homes they ran purporting to care for women and children.
This book serves a love letter to healthcare workers and care givers who put themselves in the frontline in the fight against diseases. We see the sacrifices they make from the small things, like missing meals and losing sleep, to risking their lives and their freedom caring for people. Its also a story of women and their strength and resilience in times of crisis. The setting of a maternity ward highlights the integral role of women in every sphere of life, from its beginning to its end.
Emma Donoghue began writing ‘The Pull of the Stars’ in October 2018, inspired by the Centenary of the Great Flu pandemic (also known as the Spanish flu), which killed more people than the first world war, an estimated 3 – 6% of the human race. She delivered her final draft to her publishers in March 2020, just as the world went into lockdown with Covid-19. The similarities between the two pandemics are quite startling and make reading this book all the more absorbing. While the book is crafted around true events, the story and characters are fictitious, with the exception of Dr Kathleen Lynn. After reading this book and the authors note I spent a good while learning about the Dr Lynn and her amazing contributions to public health as well as her time in politics.
‘The Pull of the Stars’ is historical fiction but felt entirely modern. I think reading about a pandemic whilst living in one elevated my experience of this book, as it was something I could instantly relate to, although the setting of Ireland in 1918 is far from London 2021. There are so many similarities including government guidelines and mismanagement as well as the massive strain on the public health system that Emma writes so compassionately about. There were points earlier in the book where the slow pace was almost off putting but I’m glad I persevered as it was worth it for the crescendo of an ending. I have very little experience of books set during a pandemic, especially ones that centre it, and for that reason I would argue that this is a book we should all read this year as it feels like it was written for this very moment in time.