book review: The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue




THE PULL OF THE STARS by Emma Donoghue
★★★★☆
HarperAvenue, 2020




I have a very strong stomach but I am triggered by three things. 1. Vomiting, 2. Childbirth, 3. Pandemics (this last one evoking existential dread more than nausea but do I find reading about them almost as painful as living through one). This book has all three, so, it’s a testament to how much I like Emma Donoghue’s writing that I: a. Made it through this book, and b. Actually enjoyed it. 

Set in a maternity ward in 1918 Dublin over the course of three days, The Pull of the Stars follows Julia Power, a nurse attending to expectant mothers who are sick with the flu.  It’s a fast-paced, frantic novel that contrasts the hectic episodes on the ward with the tender, budding friendship between Julia and her new volunteer helper, an uneducated girl named Bridie Sweeney.

This book is thoroughly engrossing–it immerses you in a borderline excessive amount of detail, but Donoghue manages it in a way so that it pulls the reader in rather than alienating them.  Full disclosure, I had to skip entire paragraphs of this book that were too gruesome for me, but it was entirely with regret that I did so–there’s something so transfixing about Donoghue’s storytelling, and I’ve felt this about all three of her books that I’ve read.  She also nails the evocation of this Irish hospital in a city under siege by a deadly virus. With obvious parallels to 2020 in a lot of ways, this still felt firmly fixed in its historical setting, which was a positive for me.

I did find The Pull of the Stars rather heavy-handed at times (notably in its treatment of Irish political history; it felt very transparent that Donoghue was framing Julia as an outsider to the rebellion in order to spoon feed the reader about how maybe the British empire aren’t the good guys after all!–though I will concede I probably read more of these narratives than most), but that was my only real complaint.  On the whole I thought this was a compelling, moving read, though I must caution that you need either a strong stomach or a strong conviction to make it through.

I won this copy in a Goodreads giveaway; all thoughts are my own.