Off the Shelf: Pull of the Stars By Emma Donoghue
Little, Brown, and Company ISBN 978-0-316-49901-9 2020 295 pp.
Review by Terry Kenneally
Emma Donoghue’s new book is set at a Dublin hospital in the grip of the pandemic. The influenza pandemic of 1918 (sometimes referred to as the Spanish Flu) killed more people than the First World War – an estimated three to six percent of the human race, including 675,000 in the United States.
This is the third book reviewed in Off the Shelf by Donoghue, an Irish -born woman who now lives in Canada. The other two were The Wonder, a work of historical fiction and The Room, an international best seller adapted into a movie and nominated for four Academy Awards.
The parallels to 2020 and the pandemic, which has a strange hold on all of us, are uncanny, but this is history. The sounds of wracking coughs cut through the air as medical supplies run short, and face masks become commonplace in the streets. The government touts’ false cures and contends that the epidemic is under control ( sound familiar?).
The pandemic is merely the back drop to a story about three women who come together over three days in a Dublin hospital maternity ward striving to save the lives of pregnant women at risk during labor and delivery who are also suffering from the flu.
The heroine of the book is Julia Power, a midwife, who finds herself the only nurse on duty overnight in the “fever/maternity” ward set aside for influenza patients who also happen to be pregnant. Over three days Julia goes from patient to patient administering what little treatment there is : mostly whiskey and chloroform.
Dr. Katherine Lynn
She is joined by Dr. Katherine Lynn, a rare female physician (and real historical figure) who is considered a wanted criminal by Dublin police for her role in Sinn Fein’s 1916 uprising. The third woman is a young volunteer, Bridie Sweeney, the product of an orphanage so neglected that she does not even know her age.
The scenes in the “fever/maternity” ward capture and hold one’s attention to such a degree that whenever it leaves the room, the book loses its fire, but these departures are thankfully rare. The word influenza comes from the Italian phrase “influenza delle stelle”, the influence of the stars, hence the name of the book.
The book says a lot about the searing portrait of women’s lives scarred by poverty and too many pregnancies in a society that proclaims, “She doesn’t love him unless she gives him twelve.” The Catholic Church is called to judgement for its brutal treatment of unmarried mothers and their offspring in the homes run by nuns. Emma Donoghue has crafted another thriller written presciently which is a Top Shelf read.