Originally inspired by the 1918-2018 centenary of the Spanish Flu, Emma Donoghue began writing this novel in the tradition of her historical novels like Slammerkin and The Wonder. Her author’s note includes this statistic: “The influenza pandemic of 1918 killed more people than the First World War—an estimated 3 to 6 per cent of the human race.”

With Covid-19 emerging late in 2019 and disrupting daily life around the world in 2020, The Pull of the Stars positions itself closer to Room in her oeuvre, a work destined to capture an even broader audience than anticipated.

Donoghue is an accomplished tale-spinner. From the outset, The Pull of the Stars reads at a clip. The dialogue is credible and integrated into the narrative rooted in the fast-paced environment of a Dublin hospital during a public health outbreak:

“Across the globe, in hundreds of languages, signs were going up urging people to cover their coughs. We had it no worse here than anywhere else; self-pity was as useless as panic.”

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.

The Wonder was shortlisted in 2016 (the year that Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing won) but, considering the extent of Donoghue’s bibliography, the Giller juries haven’t favoured her and this year’s jury has not advanced The Pull of the Stars to the shortlist. Perhaps the content was just a little too commercial for the prizelist (although all-the-right-kinds-of-topical for the bestseller list).

Inner workings
Donoghue wears her research lightly. Occasionally someone sings a few lines of a song, lyrics that are pointedly relevant for the scene, but it’s not like there’s Musak playing in the waiting room, not like anyone can rely on their earbuds to block out the chaos surrounding them. (I found myself willing to forgive that and, given how scenic the writing is, I can imagine an actress embodying the part of this singer to increase the credibility.)

“That’s what influenza means, she said. Influenza delle stelle—the influence of the stars. Medieval Italians thought the illness proved that the heavens were governing their fates, that people were quite literally star-crossed.”
Mostly, Donoghue’s language is deliberate, straightforward.
But, then…

…there are statements like this one: “Dublin was a great mouth holed with missing teeth.” The setting is established as much with cultural details (turns of phrase, references, and songs) as with descriptions of the city and countryside through which our narrator moves.

The Pull of the Stars is designed to pull readers into its orbit. Even if characters have some down time, there’s something happening: “What I treasured about this young woman was that she never said no. She was game for anything, it seemed, including scrambling up the gabled roof of a four-storey building.”

Readers Wanted
You’d rather rewatch an episode of Midwives than Downton Abbey.
Your favourite part of Room was the first half.
The idea of a lost Mary Pickford film thrills you to bits.
That dry cough of yours—you’re not even worried.

This book is a nominee for the 2020 Giller Prize. This post follows a format I first used in 2012. Prizelists invite readers to peer more closely at current publications; they can spark conversation, draw attention to hard-working writers, and encourage readers to look beyond these lists to the many, many other works of quality that are not included on longlists. Reading the longlisted books represents less than 5% of my year’s reading. Read widely and share your favourites!