Dublin, 1918. In a country doubly ravaged by war and diseaase, Nurse Julia Powers 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 stressful 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 the course of three days, these women change each others 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.
In The Pull Of The Stars, Emma Donoghue tells an unforgettable and deeply moving story of love and loss.
I found The Pull Of The Stars in an article called ‘Thirty books to help us understand the world in 2020’ ( https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/oct/18/thirty-books-to-help-us-understand-the-world-in-2020 ) and the concept intruiged me. I ordered it quite some time ago, before I fell victim to last years reading slump, so I dusted it off as part of my ‘Book A Week’ challenge with great anticipation.
It was an intense read which I dove into headfirst and emerged from with a deep breath. Wow. Much like the situation she describes, this book commands your respect and attention, but this does not detract from its enjoyment. I found myself holding my breath at times when she describes the plight of the mothers and the heart beat by heart beat decision-making moments where everything could go either way. It’s edge of your chair stuff and much like the blurb warns you – deeply moving.
Donoghue writes emotions into the book which spill out of the covers and seep into you – the joy, pain, frustration and moral contemplations feel as real to you as the book in your hands and I deeply respect the way that she has told this story.
As a nurse I found myself particularly interested in the descriptions of the day to day motions and treatments that Julia (the main character) takes part in. There were parts that rang a bell in my ears from my student nurse days when older nurses would tell me ‘it used to be done differently’, with stories about how matron would come and check that the wheels of the beds were all facing the same way or similar immaculate details.
There were parts that were utterly remarkable – that nurses were not trained to take blood pressures at that time for example, and others that have somehow persisted through the ages (we’ve all unfortunately heard ‘count for fifteen seconds and multiply by four’ at some point), but ultimately the bit that rang truest was the sense of responsibility and concern that she felt for her patients, both by the bedside and away from it. I would recommend it as a read for any of my colleagues who work in healthcare.
There’s also the rather obvious consideration that this book is set during a pandemic, being read during a pandemic a century later. Looking around 1918 Dublin, the facilities available and the advice being distributed by the government at the time, I am forced to conclude that we have a far greater understanding of these things, with far greater privilege than those in the setting we are reading about. It makes for thoughtful reading.
I was particularly enchanted by Bridie, who was a little ray of sunshine in this book, bringing a very innocent cheer to the story. I would also like to take a moment to mention Dr Kathleen Lynn who was a real woman who made a real difference in the lives of impoverished mothers and children (https://irishculturalcentre.co.uk/2020/04/12/film-kathleen-lynn-the-rebel-doctor/ ).
I enjoyed the book thoroughly and am popping it in a corner for a re-read in the future. I would absolutely recommend it, though with the caveat that it is not a bath read – it is a book to read with an absolute willingness to surrender yourself to the emotions and experiences of others, and know that it cannot be unread. Enjoy.
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