(Audio) Book Review: The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

Set over three days in a maternity word for pregnant flu patients in Dublin in 1918 – there’s a LOT going on here. And yet this isn’t a book that feels overwhelming. It feels steady. You feel swept up in the unceasing action of a busy hospital. Rarely a moment to rest, life and death decisions being made in a split second, the pace is steady, always pushing forward.

Nurse Julia Powers is our narrator. An experienced midwifery nurse, on the cusp of her thirtieth birthday. Shortages in the hospital have left her in charge of this small ward with only the help of Bridie Sweeney, an eager but inexperienced volunteer.

Dublin in 1918 comes alive under Donoghue’s skilled pen. The war seems never-ending and the city is still dealing with the after effects and division of the 1916 rebellion. A brutal and deadly flu is wiping out those who remain. Over all of this is the omnipresent poverty that affects so many in Dublin. Having large families is not uncommon in these communities and it is the women’s bodies that take the toll of so many births.

We get to know the patients Julia serves over these three days. They each have their own story and while we don’t delve deep, Donoghue does an excellent job of showing us these women as individuals. They provide a microcosm of Dublin at the time. The women who work in ammunition factories while the men are away. The wealthier women who can limit their family size and those who seem to abide by a popular saying, “She doesn’t love him unless she gives him 12”. (12 being the number of children.)

Donoghue doesn’t shy away from the intimate details of birth and details and of course a book with this setting is never going to be a peaceful read. I’ve had books and movies recommended to me with the caveat that I should only partake if I’m sure I’m done having my own babies. I would recommend the same here. Overall though, this book made me immensely thankful for modern medicine because I don’t think I would have survived my oldest daughter’s birth in this setting.

I listened to most of this on audio and it was very compelling. The narrator’s Irish accent was very soothing to listen to and she used accents effectively to distinguish between characters, particularly those of different class. I was a little unsure about being able to listen to some of the more gruesome details and so had a thrifted hardcopy on hand. In the end, the only part I found too hard to listen to was a blood transfusion. The birth details were personally ok for me though I did find myself wiping away some tears any time a new baby was born!

10 thoughts on “(Audio) Book Review: The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue”

  1. Oh boy, I don’t think I could read this one. I’m DEFINITELY done having kids, but hearing about women putting themselves through birth after birth just makes me cringe. I am so lucky to be alive today, and not back then!

  2. In a small way, this book review reminds me of the novel Women Talking that you recommended. In it, women keep having children, and though a medical need arises when they realize some of the toddlers have contracted dangerous STI’s, they aren’t able to get treatment unless their mothers sneak off. Bizarrely, Women Talking is set in more recent history!

    1. I hadn’t made that connection but you’re right, they have some similarities. Women Talking is shockingly recent plus based on a true story and overall I found it much more upsetting. The historical setting here meant that a lot of the poor choices characters made were simply due to ignorance or the fact that better knowledge/medical practice hadn’t yet been discovered. Women Talking is more wilful ignorance and abuse.

    2. Women Talking is a hard one because I wonder what is willful ignorance and what is true ignorance due to a lack of information. The women don’t even know where on the globe there are. That detail surprised me.

    3. I wonder if there’s an element of knowing you’re ignorant but also knowing how hard it would be to learn more – and what risk that would put you in such a community. I’m reading a book right now about a teenage girl who has lived her whole life in Brooklyn but because of her strict fundamentalist Muslim family, she’s largely ignorant of what America is really like. You can be surrounded by knowledge but have no way to access it.

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