A review of Emma Donoghue’s The Pull of the Stars
By Renske Rademaker
Emma Donoghue’s The Pull of the Stars takes place during a pandemic, but it is not the pandemic one might expect from a novel published in 2020. The novel depicts three days in the life of Dublin nurse Julia Power amidst the ravages of the 1918 Spanish influenza. Julia works at the “Maternity/Fever” ward of her hospital, which is essentially a supply closet converted into a cramped ward for three patients at a time. As most of the doctors and nurses are off sick, Julia is given the title of “acting ward sister”, meaning she is now in charge of the pregnant women who have contracted the influenza.
During three busy days in the hospital, Julia gets to know the volunteer Bridie and the new female doctor Kathleen Lynn, who was a part of the Sinn Fein uprising but was freed from prison due to the lack of healthy doctors. In the time spent with her colleagues and the female patients in her ward, Julia gains further insight into the injustice women and the poor have to face on a daily basis, and how these minorities are affected disproportionately during such catastrophic moments in history.
The perspective that Donoghue takes in this novel is unexpected because it is set in 1918 Dublin, but the focus is not on the Great War. It is merely mentioned a few times, mostly when the deaths of the war are compared to those of the pandemic. Donoghue provides new insights for this period by writing from a female perspective at the home front.
The women in The Pull of the Stars each have to face the way their gender and social class forced them in situations where they are treated unequally or wrongly, mostly in a medical sense. For instance, Julia has to carefully manoeuvre a male doctor away from her patient, because he does not know how to properly care for her. She is fully aware that questioning his expertise could be seen as insulting.
Furthermore, the novel depicts several women whose poor conditions forced them into situations where they were infected with the influenza, and who did not have the time nor money to go to a hospital. The intersection of various oppressions can create an environment in which a certain group of people are more likely to die because of the disease. Through the 1918 pandemic, Donoghue highlights the faults of Dublin’s society at that time.
At the start of the novel, Julia is our main source of insight, as she portrays how the male doctors do not entirely understand the female body, and how her behaviour is constantly scrutinised by men. Her surplus of information and the lack of knowledge of the people around her provides Julia with ample opportunity to explain, to the characters as well as the reader, the oppression occurring in women’s health issues.
However, if Donoghue had continued on this course, Julia would have turned into an all-knowing being, which would take away from the realism of the novel. Instead, Donoghue introduces other characters with new knowledge. Bridie, for instance, fills the gap on how the poorer people in Dublin are affected by the influenza, a topic on which Julia is rather ignorant.
Doctor Lynn arrives to explain classism to Julia and the reader and points out the mistakes the that the Irish government is making. Julia is at first hesitant to believe her, but eventually relents when she comes to see the way her patients live. Of the women in her ward, several struggle under circumstances such as poverty, repeated sexual abuse, and physical abuse.
Donoghue claims in the acknowledgements that the novel is “a fiction pinned together by facts”, which can be gleaned from the justification of certain medical terms in the author’s note, and the fact that Kathleen Lynn was a real person. However, the realism of the storyline is weakened through the inclusion of a tragic love story. Near the end of the novel, quickly after Bridie and Julia fall in love and share their first kiss, Bridie falls ill and dies.
It is likely that Donoghue was attempting to demonstrate how terrible the influenza was and how quickly it could turn lethal, as well as offer a romantic storyline that a 21st-century reader can connect with. However, Bridie’s death comes incredibly quickly after she and Julia fall in love, a mere 20 pages before the end of the novel.
This turn of events feels as though it is thrown in merely to include a tragic romance in the story. Further, it reduces Bridie to a dying love interest. To balance this tragedy and provide a somewhat happy ending, Donoghue has Julia steal an unwanted baby from the ward.
Julia mentions at some point that she does not think she will ever have a husband and children, and there is no indication she would want to adopt by herself. Her taking the baby comes out of the blue. Besides, there are no mentions of possible legal repercussions, which leaves the reader with some sudden questions after having finished the book.
Regardless, The Pull of the Stars is a thought-provoking portrayal of women’s life during a pandemic. It is impossible not to read its events in light of our current situation, even if Donoghue wrote it in 2018. The publication process was sped up, which shows that the publishers thought the public could benefit from this novel in these trying times. The parallels might make people realise the seriousness of our situation, if they do not already. Let’s just hope we can take inspiration from this novel and not make the same mistakes twice.
Renske Rademaker is currently a Master’s student in the Literature Today programme at Utrecht University. During her BA, she mainly focused on feminist and queer literature.
Donoghue, Emma. The Pull of the Stars. Picador, 2020.
Smith, Bill. “Flashback: Evanston During the 1918 Spanish Flu Epidemic.” Evanston Now. 17 Mar. 2020. https://evanstonnow.com/flashback-evanston-during-1918-spanish-flu-epidemic/.