I gazed up at the sky and let my eyes flicker from one constellation to another to another, jumping between stepping-stones. I thought of the heavenly bodies throwing down their narrow ropes of light to hook us.
I’d never believed the future was inscribed for each of us the day we were born. If anything was written in the stars, it was we who joined those dots, and our lives were in the writing.
I think Emma Donoghue is a good novelist. She has smart ideas and she has an enviable capacity to execute each new concept she comes up with both efficiently and competently: it seemed like I had only just filed my review of Akin for Canadian Notes and Queries when I heard that The Pull of the Stars was coming out, and Akin wasn’t that long after The Wonder, which I reviewed for the TLS. If my noting that Donoghue is efficient and competent seems like damning her with faint praise, well, you aren’t entirely wrong. What frustrates me is that while all of these novels are fine–I would even say that The Wonder is quite good–they are not great, and yet they somehow give me the impression that Donoghue could write a great novel if she took more time and dug a little deeper. (I’ve read two of Donoghue’s earlier novels, Room and Slammerkin; they too are fine. I think I also read The Sealed Letter; that I can’t remember for sure is perhaps not a good sign for it–or maybe for me!)
Unfortunately, The Pull of the Stars is the least fine of the ones I’ve read: though I was gripped by it at first, by the end I found it quite disappointing. The ingredients are excellent, Donoghue’s research was obviously meticulous, and some moments are really memorable, but as a whole, it just doesn’t work very well. The premise is simple and promising: the novel covers three intense days in a Dublin maternity ward during the 1918 flu pandemic. It follows the grueling and often heroic exertions of Nurse Julia Power, her feisty volunteer assistant Bridie Sweeney, and Dr. Kathleen Lynn, an actual historical person who (among other things) was active in Sinn Féin and a fierce advocate for “nutrition, housing, and sanitation for her fellow citizens” (from Donoghue’s Author’s Note). The graphic descriptions of medical crises and procedures–whether for symptoms of influenza or for childbirth–make for grim reading that’s often really absorbing, in a documentary sort of way. Here’s a representative sample:
I considered an enema but decided that she’d been eating so little, there was probably nothing in her bowels. The pangs kept coming every three minutes, a clockwork torture. For all Mary O’Rahilly’s efforts, nothing in her great taut bump seemed to be descending. Could the head be stuck at the pelvic brim? Nothing was changing except that the young woman was getting limper and paler . . .
From the sterile trays on the high shelf I snatched a long needle, a tube, and rubber bulb syringe. I filled a bowl to the two-pint mark with hot water from the pan, measured the salt in, then brought it down to blood temperature by adding some cold.
When I tied a catgut ligature above Mary O’Rahilly’s right elbow and tightened it until a sky-blue vein stood out, she barely seemed to notice. Obedient to the next contraction, she gripped the roller towel and pushed her stockinged feet against the bare rails. (The pillow had fallen to the floor, but I couldn’t reach it.)
You can certainly picture all of this, just as you can “see” very clearly the whole awful process of her reaching up into a mother’s body to retrieve an unattached portion of the placenta or the awful progression of the influenza as it takes a young woman through the too-familiar stages “red to brown to blue to black.”
Assuming you have the stomach for this kind of stuff, and also assuming you have the emotional fortitude to persist with a novel about a pandemic while in the midst of one (that was a close call for me)–if neither of those aspects of The Pull of the Stars puts you off, then what’s not to like? Well, of course you might like it just fine! My complaint is that for most of the book, there’s almost no story, no plot: it’s just a sequence of events. The only shape the narrative has is linear: things happen, one after another, and our small cast of characters reacts, but moving on to the next thing is not the same as going anywhere. Maybe that was a deliberate formal choice, as Julia herself resists the idea that people’s lives have direction or meaning, but for me it made the first three quarters of the novel feel aimless, with no sense that its parts were turning into anything. Then the novel became a love story, a development which seemed so abrupt it felt like an afterthought: there was no groundwork laid for it, no anticipation of it, no thematic reason for it. And then, just as abruptly, the love story [SPOILER ALERT] turns to tragedy, and while we know by then that the influenza can progress with appalling speed, still, it felt unfortunately pat as a way to wrap things up.
There are some other threads of interest in the novel, including scathing critiques of the nuns and the abusive girls’ “homes” they run, and Dr. Lynn provides occasions for some bits of political back and forth. Again, these are good ingredients (especially Dr. Lynn, whose biography Kathleen Lynn: Irishwoman, Patriot, Doctor sounds well worth reading), but I like a novel to feel, by the end, like something significantly more than the sum of its parts, and I don’t think The Pull of the Stars pulled that off, even though Donoghue joins all the dots neatly enough. If for some reason you are actually in the mood for a novel about the plague, I would recommend reading Hamnet instead: it is original and beautiful and devastating in a way that Donoghue’s novel, well conceived and well written as it is, just isn’t.