With resources constrained dramatically because of the surge in flu patients who require care, alongside the usual day-to-day work required for patients who were admitted for other conditions and procedures, the tension in this novel exists from the start and Donoghue sustains it throughout. “This new flu was an uncanny plague, scything down swaths of men and women in the full bloom of their youth.”
Although she began writing as an academic and her earlier novels were more character-driven than plot-driven, Donoghue has cultivated a tone which straddles the literary and commercial divide; she invites readers to identify with a main character, whose emotions and daily life are purposefully displayed to create a kind of intimacy (and, often, reliability), and that character’s experiences are determinedly plotted to maintain readers’ interest. Because I did not love The Wonder, I was reluctant to pick up this novel, but I was quickly engaged in the story nonetheless.
Here, the focus is on a maternity ward, where matters of life and death are at the forefront on a normal day, but in 1918, normal is rapidly shifting. The smells are consistent, however: “I thought, Eucalyptus, linseed, carbolic? Whiskey, at the moment? For me they couldn’t cover up the faecal, bloody tang of birth and death.” And, figuratively: “I had such long acquaintance with other women’s pain, I could almost smell it coming.”
Donoghue’s dedication to women’s struggles for equality is consistent too. “I didn’t tell Bridie about a girl who’d managed to half throttle herself in the lavatory with a bandage before Sister Finnigan had found her. No fever, in her case, but a reason for despair: twelve years old and seven months gone. From hints she let slip, we suspected her father.”
For my taste, I often wish that her stories had a different shape; there’s no question that she is unspooling them with a degree of delicacy, but I long for another kind of motion and I am often out-of-synch with plot developments. I connected more with John Bart’s Middenrammers (2016) on historical maternity care, with Ling Ma’s Severance (2018) on the spread of communicable disease, and with the queer love story in Louise Erdrich’s The Master Butchers Singing Club (2003).
Nonetheless, there’s much to admire about Donoghue’s writing, and although I find myself more drawn to her more interior stories (Hood and Stir-Fry, for instance—also unabashedly lesbian love stories), I’m glad her work connects with so many readers.