Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

Dept of Environment and Climate Change

A Touching Historical Novel in the Midst of Another Pandemic a Century Ago

Book Title: The Pull of the Stars

Author: Emma Donoghue

Published by: Picador/Pan Macmillan India

Genre: Fiction


Book summary:

In an Ireland doubly ravaged by war and disease, Nurse Julia Power works at an understaffed hospital in the city centre, where expectant mothers who have come down with an unfamiliar flu are quarantined together. Into Julia’s regimented world step two outsiders: Doctor Kathleen Lynn, on the run from the police, and a young volunteer helper, Bridie Sweeney.

In the darkness and intensity of this tiny ward, over three days, these women change each other’s lives in unexpected ways. They lose patients to this baffling pandemic, but they also shepherd new life into a fearful world. With tireless tenderness and humanity, carers and mothers alike somehow do their impossible work.

About the author:

Emma Donoghue is an Irish-Canadian playwright, literary historian, novelist, and screenwriter. Her 2010 novel Room was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize and is an international best-seller. Room was adapted into a film of the same name, for which Donoghue wrote the screenplay that was subsequently nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Donoghue writes across genres and for screen, stage and radio.

My Review:

Set in Ireland in 1918 in the backdrop of the First World when waves of people are getting killed on the battlefield from bullets and on the home front under the onslaught of a pandemic (influenza), Emma Donaghue’s latest book has quite a range of interesting themes to offer readers: there is an added adrenaline rush to how things move and in the way characters react to one another, there is a sense of fear and insecurity in the air brought on by the still unknown pandemic that many think is the result of the war and brought home by soldiers from the trenches.

There is total chaos brought on by a lack of an effective response to the health crisis and an edgy fear with religious overtones and political inefficiency everywhere (sounds familiar anyone?) while at an understaffed hospital, a young mid wife struggles to save pregnant women who are fighting battles of a different kind: the social belief that they are child bearing machines and giving birth not knowing how and being beaten up (literally) and pushed around by the social situation they find themselves in. The range of human emotions: the oppressive ear of the unknown disease outside and what it reveals of the inner fears of people complements the historical backdrop.

This is a book that is raw in the way things were but relevant still to the times that we live in now, many decades later: how pandemics unravel health systems and ineffective governance, how men and women suffer differently but how women suffer most as care givers and as victims both. The subtle look at the idea of nationhood and the ties of duty that a citizen is bound with is touched with deft hands and I enjoyed this book thoroughly.

The characters are all trying to hold on: there is Nurse Julia Powers, the central figure who quietly grieves the deaths of women and children who do not make it alive even as she wrestles with having to care for her brother who has come back from the war with a trauma so acute he does not speak; there is Birdie whose story reveals the chinks and exploitation that exist in systems that are meant to help support and care to people in need and Doctor Kathleen Lynn, a real historical figure who is hounded by the Government of the day for her association and political activism with the Sinn Feinn movement. The subtle nuance of how Lynn who is looked on an enemy of the nation because of her association with the Sinn Feinn movement while she on her part going every way possible to contain a pandemic that the Government is out of depth with, makes readers look at how one narrative might not necessarily be the only correct narrative.

With a line up of strong female characters, you expect to get an all out male bashing and hence, it was beautiful to read a passage where Powers sees behind the typical male façade of a character who she as well as the reader will find insufferable and is revealed to be facing his own share of battles. The exchanges between the characters on themes like duty and loyalty to the nation, the moral connotations over violence and healing are understated and portray their nuances well. It’s a book that readers need to read beyond the plot line. If you love historical fiction and like following characters that grow with the narrative, this one is for you!

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