Emma Donoghue’s latest novel, The Pull of the Stars, is a chamber play that follows three days in the life of Nurse Julia Power and her new assistant, Bridie Sweeney. Together, they work in the maternity/fever ward in a Dublin hospital, tending to women who are both pregnant and fighting the Spanish flu, ‘infamous for expelling babies before their time’. Dublin in 1918 is struggling with overlapping crises: the flu, the First World War and the fight for Home Rule all intrude upon events in the ward.
The novel is ambitious in scope and particularly good on the war, the effects of which can be seen in Dublin’s useless men, variously old and foolish or young and broken. Julia’s brother has not spoken since returning from the front, and in one sequence a group of policemen lingering in the ward are too terrified to remain once a patient goes into labour: ‘The policemen fled’, as they do throughout the novel. Much is made of the idea that traditional gender roles are reversed in the war being fought at home, and Donoghue is keen to stress that it is indeed a war. At one point Julia explicitly applies the idea of the blood tax (the name given to the obligation on men to serve at the front) to childbirth: ‘Women have been paying the blood tax since time began.’ The labour sequences read like descriptions of military campaigns, and the lack of quotation marks allows the action in the ward and the barked orders to swim together in a way that is engagingly chaotic.