April 29

Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

COVID was an odd and powerful backdrop to read this one Readheads. As if reality wasn’t strange enough, I thought ‘hey, let’s not just be in a pandemic, let’s get stuck into a book about one too.’

I’m not really a sucker for punishment but I am a sucker for anything written by Emma Donoghue.

Set in Dublin 1918, the country is being ravaged by disease and war. A new flu-like infection has emerged – highly contagious, fast and lethal.

Midwife Julia Power tirelessly works at the local over-run hospital to keep the pregnant women and their babies alive. They are understaffed, ill-equipped and the infection rages inside and outside the walls of the hospital delivering more and more people to the wards. It is bleak – a bit of a hallmark of Donogue’s style and for the love of Guinness, she does it oh so very well. You feel the ice in your bones.

All the patients are cramped together in a small freezing ward with the local nuns hovering to take away babies and the male orderlies ready to take away dead bodies. The pregnant women move between labor, delirium, birthing and sometimes death and Julia stands by each of them. It’s impossible, unrelenting work and the hours become a blur (for Julia and us as the reader) but then in the chaos, two women arrive. New hospital doctor Kathleen Lynn – on the run from the police for her anti-war activism – and in her wake a young volunteer, Bridie Sweeney.

There’s little time for introductions.

Tightly condensed over three days and nights and at the height of the pandemic, together – with strength and tenderness and fear – Julia, Kathleen and Bridie lurch from crisis to crisis, they lose patients and bring new babies into the world.

And then, overwhelmed with exhaustion and desperate for respite, Julia and Bridie climb out onto the hospital roof to sleep because there are no beds anywhere else. Call it the pull of the stars if you will, but what they discover there is beautiful and catastrophic and final. Again, another Donoghue classic twist.

Worth a read? Absolutely. Will you need a warm drink and a blanket while you do. Oh, most definitely. And having witnessed what we have over the past 12 months will you read this book with different eyes and a softened heart. Without question.

But that is just my two cents worth.