"The Pull of the Stars" | Reviewed by Chris Stuckenschneider
Updated: Aug 1, 2020
A new Emma Donoghue book fills me with anticipation. Since reading her novel “The Room,” in 2010, I’ve been a fan. That pageturner was mesmerizing, yet disturbing.
So I couldn’t wait to dig into Donoghue’s “The Pull of the Stars,” set in 1918 at the end of World War I, when an influenza pandemic took more lives than the war—“3 to 6 percent of the human race,” as Donoghue states in her author’s note.
She sets her riveting story against this backdrop, introducing readers to Julia Power, a nurse who champions her way through a maelstrom of despair as she cares for expectant mothers stricken with varying degrees of the flu in a Dublin hospital.
Compassionate, intelligent Nurse Power does her best to fill the shoes of a doctors overwhelmed and strapped for time as they rush to treat the sick and dying, leaving the care of three pregnant women up to her, and her inexperienced, but kind, assistant Bridie Sweeney.
Together this unlikely team face situations bravely and bond over three days as they care for Eileen Devine, Ita Noonan, Delia Garrett, and their infants, each expectant mother suffering from complications both medical and personal.
Steeped in the terror of the pandemic, Nurse Power also lives with the horror of the war. Her brother returned from the trenches shell-shocked, unable to work, and dependent on his sister for support.
Donoghue’s writing, as always is powerful, and her narrative hits close to home, a fearful populace in 1918 donning masks and being advised to “cover their coughs.” Any restraint Donoghue applies in her description of the suffering caused by the flu, isn’t spared in childbirth scenes certain to be passed over by the squeamish.
While “The Pull of the Stars” is well done, and Nurse Power and Bridie are admirable, the book is so broodingly dark as to be off-putting. And this is a shame for Donoghue, who once again has written a marvelous story, a timely book at a time when readers might be craving more escapism rather than realism.