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The Pull of the Stars
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In an Ireland doubly ravaged by war and disease, Nurse Julia Power works at an understaffed hospital in the city center, where expectant mothers who have come down with the terrible new Flu are quarantined together. Into Julia's regimented world step two outsiders—Doctor Kathleen Lynn, a rumoured Rebel on the run from the police, and a young volunteer helper, Bridie Sweeney.
In the darkness and intensity of this tiny ward, over three days, these women change each other's lives in unexpected ways. They lose patients to this baffling pandemic, but they also shepherd new life into a fearful world. With tireless tenderness and humanity, carers and mothers alike somehow do their impossible work.
In The Pull of the Stars, Emma Donoghue once again finds the light in the darkness in this new classic of hope and survival against all odds.
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STILL HOURS OF DARK to go when I left the house that morning. I cycled through reeking Dublin streets that were slick with rain. My short green cape kept off the worst, but my coat sleeves were soon wet through. A waft of dung and blood as I passed a lane where livestock were waiting. A boy in a man’s coat shouted something rude at me. I pedalled faster, past a motor car creeping along to eke out its petrol.
I left my cycle in the usual alley and clipped the combination lock onto the back wheel. (German manufacture, of course. How would I replace it when its mechanism rusted up?) I let down the side tapes of my skirt and took my rain-soaked bag out of the basket. I’d have preferred to cycle all the way to the hospital, and it would have brought me there in half the time the tram took, but Matron wouldn’t hear of her nurses turning up in a sweat.
Emerging onto the street, I nearly walked into a disinfection cart. Its sweet, tarry tang marked the air. I ducked away from the masked men who were spraying the gutters and feeding their hose through the grating of gully after gully.
I passed an improvised war shrine—a wooden triptych draped with the Union Jack. There was a chipped azure Virgin Mary for good measure and a shelf below overflowing with decaying flowers. The names painted on were just a few dozen Irishmen out of the tens of thousands lost so far, out of hundreds of thousands who’d enlisted. I thought of my brother, whom I’d left at home finishing a piece of toast.
At the tram stop, the pool of electric light was becoming watery as dawn approached. The lamppost was pasted with advertisements: DEPLETED AND DEBILITATED FROM LIVING TOO QUICKLY? FEELING OLD BEFORE ONE’S TIME?
Tomorrow I’d be thirty.
But I refused to flinch at the number. Thirty meant maturity, a certain stature and force, no? And the suffrage, even, now they were extending it to women over thirty who met the property qualifications. Though the prospect of voting felt unreal to me, since the United Kingdom hadn’t had a general election in eight years and wouldn’t till the war was over, and God alone knew what state the world would be in by then.
The first two trams whizzed by, crammed to bursting; more routes must have been cut this week. When the third came, I made myself push onto it. The steps were slippery with carbolic, and my rubber soles could get no purchase. I clung to the stair rail as the tram swayed through the fading darkness and hauled myself upwards. The riders on the balcony section looked soaked through, so I ducked in under the roof, where a long sticker said COVER UP EACH COUGH OR SNEEZE…FOOLS AND TRAITORS SPREAD DISEASE.
I was cooling fast after my bike ride, starting to shiver. Two men on the knifeboard bench moved a little apart so I could wedge myself between them, bag on my lap. Drizzle slanted in on us all.
The tram accelerated with a rising whine, passing a line of waiting cabs, but their blinkered horses took no notice. I saw a couple arm in arm below us hurry through a puddle of lamplight, their bluntly pointed masks like the beaks of unfamiliar birds.
The conductor inched along the crowded top deck now. His torch—a flat one, like a whiskey flask—spilled a wavering radiance over knees and shoes. I gouged the sweaty penny out of my glove and dropped it into his sloshing tin, wondering whether the inch of carbolic would really wash the germs off.
He warned me, That’ll only bring you to the Pillar.
So the penny fare’s gone up?
Not at all, there’d be ructions. But it doesn’t take you as far now.
In the old days I would have smiled at the paradox. So to get to the hospital…
A halfpenny more on top of your penny, said the conductor.
I dug my purse out of my bag and found him the coin.
Children carrying suitcases were filing into the train station as we swung past, being sent down the country in hopes they’d be safe. But from what I could gather, the plague was general all over Ireland. The spectre had a dozen names: the great flu, khaki flu, blue flu, black flu, the grippe, or the grip…(That word always made me think of a heavy hand landing on one’s shoulder and gripping it hard.) The malady, some called it euphemistically. Or the war sickness, on the assumption that it must somehow be a side effect of four years of slaughter, a poison brewed in the trenches or spread by all this hurly-burly and milling about across the globe.
I counted myself lucky; I was one of those who’d come through practically unscathed. At the start of September I’d taken to my bed hurting all over, knowing enough about this brutal flu to be rather in a funk, but I’d found myself back on my feet in a matter of days. Colours appeared a bit silvery to me for a few weeks, as if I were looking through smoked glass. Apart from that, I was only a little lowered in spirits, nothing worth making a fuss about.
A delivery boy—matchstick legs in shorts—whizzed past us, raising a peacock’s fan of oily water. How slowly this tram was trundling through the sparse traffic—to save electricity, I supposed, or in line with some new bylaw. I’d have been at the hospital already if Matron let us cycle all the way there.
Not that she’d know if I broke her rule; for the past three days she’d been propped up on pillows in a Women’s Fever ward, coughing too hard to speak. But it seemed sneaky to do it behind her back.
South of Nelson’s Pillar, the brakes ground and squealed, and we came to a halt. I looked back at the charred carapace of the post office, one of half a dozen spots where the rebels had holed up for their six-day Rising. A pointless and perverse exercise. Hadn’t Westminster been on the brink of granting home rule for Ireland before the outbreak of world war had postponed the matter? I’d no particular objection to being governed from Dublin rather than London if it could come about by peaceful means. But gunfire in these streets in ’16 hadn’t brought home rule an inch closer, had it? Only given most of us reason to hate those few who’d shed blood in our names.
Farther down the road, where firms such as the bookshop where I used to buy Tim’s comics had been razed by British shellfire during that brief rebellion, there was no sign of any rebuilding yet. Some side streets remained barricaded with felled trees and barbed wire. I supposed concrete, tar, asphalt, and wood were all unaffordable as long as the war lasted.
Delia Garrett, I thought. Ita Noonan.
Eileen Devine, the barrow woman. Her flu had turned to pneumonia—all yesterday she’d coughed up greenish-red, and her temperature was a kite jerking up and down.
Stop it, Julia.
I tried not to dwell on my patients between shifts since it wasn’t as if I could do a thing for them until I was back on the ward.
On a fence, specifics of a variety concert with CANCELLED stamped diagonally across them; an advertisement for the All-Ireland Hurling Finals, POSTPONED FOR THE DURATION pasted on it. So many shops shuttered now due to staff being laid low by the grippe, and offices with blinds drawn down or regretful notices nailed up. Many of the firms that were still open looked deserted to me, on the verge of failing for lack of custom. Dublin was a great mouth holed with missing teeth.
A waft of eucalyptus. The man to my left on the tram bench was pressing a soaked handkerchief over his nose and mouth. Some wore it on their scarves or coats these days. I used to like the woody fragrance before it came to mean fear. Not that I had any reason to shrink from a stranger’s sneeze, being immune now to this season’s awful strain of flu; there was a certain relief to having had my dose already.
A man’s explosive cough on the bench behind me. Then another. Hack, hack, a tree being axed with too small a blade. The mass of bodies leaned away. That ambiguous sound could be the start of the flu or a convalescent’s lingering symptom; it could signify the harmless common cold or be a nervous tic, caught like a yawn just by thinking about it. But at the moment this whole city was inclined to assume the worst, and no wonder.
Three hearses in a row outside an undertaker’s, the horses already in harness for the morning’s first burials. Two aproned men shouldered a load of pale planks down the lane to the back—for building more coffins, I realised.
The streetlamps were dimming now as day came. The tram rattled past an overloaded motor launch that looked tilted, askew; I saw two men kick at the rear axle. A dozen passengers in mourning wear still sat pressed together on its benches, as if stubbornness might get them to the funeral mass on time. But the driver, despairing, let her forehead rest on the steering wheel.
The man sitting jammed against my right elbow trained a little torch on his newspaper. I never had a paper in the house anymore for fear of upsetting Tim. Some mornings I brought a book to read, but last week the library had recalled them all for quarantine.
The date at the top reminded me that it was Halloween. The front page was offering hot lemonade, I noticed, and life insurance, and Cinna-Mint, the Germicidal Throat Tablet. So many ex-votos sprinkled among the small ads: Sincere thanks to the Sacred Heart and the Holy Souls for our family’s recovery. The man turned the page, but his newspaper was blank inside, a great rectangle of dirty white. He let out a grunt of irritation.
A man’s voice from the other side of him: Power shortages—they must have had to leave off printing halfway.
A woman behind us said, Sure aren’t the gasmen doing their best to keep the works up and running, half staffed?
My neighbour flipped to the back page instead. I tried not to register the headlines in the veer of his shaky beam: Naval Mutiny Against the Kaiser. Diplomatic Negotiations at the Highest Level. People thought the Central Powers couldn’t possibly hold out much longer against the Allies. But then, they’d been saying as much for years.
Half this news was made up, I reminded myself. Or slanted to boost morale, or at least censored to keep it from falling any further. For instance, our papers had stopped including the Roll of Honor—soldiers lost in the various theatres of war. Irishmen who’d signed up for the sake of king and empire, or the just cause of defending small nations, or for want of a job, or for a taste of adventure, or—like my brother—because a mate was going. I’d studied the roll daily for any mention of Tim during the almost three years he’d been posted abroad. (Gallipoli, Salonika, Palestine—the place-names still made me shudder.) Every week the columns had crawled another inch across the newspaper under headings with the ring of categories in a macabre parlor game: Missing; Prisoner in Enemy Hands; Wounded; Wounded—Shell Shock; Died of Wounds; and Killed in Action. Photographs, sometimes. Identifying details; appeals for information. But last year, casualties had grown too many and paper too scarce, so it had been decided that the list should from that point on be made public only for those who could pay for it as a threepenny weekly.
I noticed just one headline about the flu today, low down on the right: Increase in Reports of Influenza. A masterpiece of understatement, as if it were only the reporting that had increased, or perhaps the pandemic was a figment of the collective imagination. I wondered whether it was the newspaper publisher’s decision to play down the danger or if he’d received orders from above.
The grand, old-fashioned silhouette of the hospital reared up ahead against the pallid sky. My stomach coiled. Excitement or nerves; hard to tell them apart these days. I struggled to the stairs and let gravity help me down.
On the lower deck, a man hawked and spat on the floor. People twitched and drew back shoes and hems.
A female voice wailed, Sure you might as well spray us with bullets!
Stepping off the tram, I saw the latest official notice in huge letters, pasted up every few feet.
A NEW FOE IS IN OUR MIDST: PANIC.
THE GENERAL WEAKENING OF NERVE POWER
KNOWN AS WAR-WEARINESS
HAS OPENED A DOOR TO CONTAGION.
DEFEATISTS ARE THE ALLIES OF DISEASE.
I supposed the authorities were trying to buck us up in their shrill way, but it seemed unfair to blame the sick for defeatism.
Written across the top of the hospital gates, in gilded wrought iron that caught the last of the streetlight: Vita gloriosa vita. Life, glorious life.
On my first day, when I’d been just twenty-one, the motto had made me tingle from scalp to toe. My father had stumped up the fees for the full three-year course at the Technical School for Nurses, and I’d been sent here for ward work three afternoons a week; it was in this hulking, four-storey building—handsome in a bleak, Victorian way—that I’d learnt everything of substance.
Vita gloriosa vita. The serifs were tipped with soot, I noticed now.
I crossed the courtyard behind a pair of white-coiffed nuns and followed them in. Religious sisters were said to make the most devoted, self-abnegating nurses; I wasn’t sure about that, but I’d certainly been made to feel second best by a few nuns over my years here. Like most of the hospitals, schools, and orphanages in Ireland, this place couldn’t have run without the expertise and labour of the various orders of the sisters. Most of the staff were Roman Catholics, but the hospital was open to any residents of the capital who needed care (though Protestants usually went to their own hospitals or hired private nurses).
I should have been down the country. I’d been due a whole three days off, so I’d arranged to go to Dadda’s farm for a little rest and fresh air but then had to send him a telegram at the last minute explaining that my leave was cancelled. I couldn’t be spared, since so many nurses—including Matron herself—had come down with the grippe.
Dadda and his wife’s farm, technically. Tim and I were perfectly civil to our stepmother and vice versa. Even though she’d never had children of her own, she’d always kept us at a slight remove, and I supposed we’d done the same. At least she had no reason to resent us now we were grown and supporting ourselves in Dublin. Nurses were notoriously underpaid, but my brother and I managed to rent a small house, mostly thanks to Tim’s military pension.
Urgency girdled me now. Eileen Devine, Ita Noonan, Delia Garrett; how were my patients getting on without me?
It felt colder inside the hospital than out these days; lamps were kept turned down and coal fires meagrely fed. Every week, more grippe cases were carried into our wards, more cots jammed in. The hospital’s atmosphere of scrupulous order—which had survived four years of wartime disruption and shortages and even the Rising’s six days of gunfire and chaos—was finally crumbling under this burden. Staff who fell sick disappeared like pawns from a chessboard. The rest of us made do, worked harder, faster, pulled more than our weight—but it wasn’t enough. This flu was clogging the whole works of the hospital.
Not just the hospital, I reminded myself—the whole of Dublin. The whole country. As far as I could tell, the whole world was a machine grinding to a halt. Across the globe, in hundreds of languages, signs were going up urging people to cover their coughs. We had it no worse here than anywhere else; self-pity was as useless as panic.
No sign of our porter this morning; I hoped he wasn’t off sick too. Only a charwoman sluicing the marble with carbolic around the base of the blue-robed Virgin.
As I hurried past Admitting towards the stairs to Maternity/Fever, I recognised a junior nurse behind her mask; she was red-spattered from bib to hem like something out of an abattoir. Standards were really slipping.
Nurse Cavanagh, are you just out of surgery?
She shook her head and answered hoarsely: Just now, on my way here, Nurse Power—a woman insisted I come see to a man who’d fallen in the street. Quite black in the face, he was, clawing at his collar.
I put my hand on the junior’s wrist to calm her.
She went on in gulps. I was trying to sit him up on the cobblestones and undo his collar studs to help him breathe—
—but he let out one great cough and…Nurse Cavanagh gestured at the blood all over her with widespread, tacky fingers.
I could smell it, harsh and metallic. Oh, my dear. Has he been triaged yet?
But when I followed her eyes to the draped stretcher on the floor behind her, I guessed he was past that point, beyond our reach. Whoever had brought a stretcher into the road and helped Nurse Cavanagh carry him into the hospital must have abandoned the two of them here.
I crouched now to put my hand under the sheet and check the man’s neck for a pulse. Nothing.
This weird malady. It took months for the flu to defeat some patients, sneaking up on them by way of pneumoniac complications, battling for every inch of territory. Others succumbed to it in a matter of hours. Had this poor fellow been a stoic who’d denied his aches, fever, and cough until he’d found all at once, out in the street, that he couldn’t walk, couldn’t speak, could only whoop out his lifeblood all over Nurse Cavanagh? Or had he felt all right this morning even as the storm had been gathering inside him?
The other day an ambulance driver told me an awful story: He and his team had motored off in response to a phone call from a young woman (in perfect health herself, she said, but one of her fellow lodgers seemed very ill and the other two not well), and when the ambulance arrived, they found four bodies.
I realised that Nurse Cavanagh hadn’t felt able to leave this passage outside Admitting even to fetch help in case someone tripped over the corpse. I remembered being a junior, the paralysing fear that by following one rule, you’d break another.
I’ll find some orderlies to carry him down to the mortuary, I promised her. Go and get yourself a cup of tea.
Nurse Cavanagh managed to nod. She asked, Shouldn’t you have a mask on?
I went down with flu last month.
So did I, but…
Well, then. (I tried to sound kind rather than irritated.) One can’t catch it twice.
Nurse Cavanagh only blinked uncertainly, a rabbit frozen on a railway line.
I went down the corridor and put my head into the orderlies’ room.
A knot of smokers in crumpled round caps and in white to the knees, like butchers. The waft made me long for a Woodbine. (Matron broke all her nurses of the filthy habit, but once in a while I relapsed.)
Excuse me, there’s a dead man at Admitting.
The one with the metal half-face snorted wetly. Come to the wrong place, then, hasn’t he?
Nichols, that’s who the orderly was—Noseless Nichols. (A ghastly phrase, but such tricks helped me remember names.) The copper mask that covered what had been his nose and left cheek was thin, enamelled, unnervingly lifelike, with the bluish tint of a shaved jaw and a real moustache soldered on.
The man beside him, the one with the trembling hands, was O’Shea—Shaky O’Shea.
The third man, Groyne, sighed. Another soul gone to his account!
These three had all been stretcher-bearers. They’d enlisted together, the story went, but only O’Shea and Nichols had been sent up the line. Equipment shortages at the front were so awful that when bearers ran out of stretchers, they had to drag the wounded along on coats or even webs of wire. Groyne had been lucky enough to be posted to a military hospital and was never sent within earshot of the cannon; he’d come back quite unmarked, a letter returned to sender. They were all mates still, but Groyne was the one of the threesome I couldn’t help but dislike.
Anonymous at Admitting, we’ll call him, Groyne intoned. Gone beyond the veil. Off to join the great majority.
The orderly had a bottomless supply of clever euphemisms for the great leveller. Turned up her toes, Groyne might say when a patient died, or hopped the twig, or counting worms.
Something else I held against him was that he fancied himself a singer. Goodbye-ee, he crooned lugubriously now, goodbye-ee…
Nichols’s nasal, echoey voice joined in on the second line: Wipe the tear, baby dear, from your eye-ee.
I set my teeth. Despite the fact that we nurses had years of training—a theory diploma from the technical school as well as a practical one from the hospital and a third in an area of specialty—the orderlies liked to talk down to us, as if feminine weakness made us need their help. But it always paid to be civil, so I asked, Could two of you possibly bring Anonymous below when you have a moment?
O’Shea told me, Anything for you, Nurse Power.
Groyne reached towards the overflowing brass ashtray, stubbed out his fag, and put it in his breast pocket for later, singing on.
Don’t cry-ee, don’t sigh-ee,
There’s a silver lining in the sky-ee.
Bonsoir, old thing, cheerio, chin chin,
Napoo, toodle-oo, goodbye-ee.
I said, Thanks ever so, gentlemen.
Heading for the stairs, I found I was a little dizzy; I hadn’t eaten anything yet today.
Down into the basement, then, not right towards the mortuary but left to the temporary canteen that had been set up off the kitchen. Our ground-floor dining rooms had been commandeered as flu wards, so now staff meals were dished up in a windowless square that smelled of furniture polish, porridge, anxiety.
Even with doctors and nurses having to muddle in together in this ad hoc canteen, there were so few of us still on our feet and reporting for duty that the breakfast queue was short. People leaned against the walls, wolfing down something egg-coloured with an obscure kind of sausage. Roughly half were wearing masks, I noticed, the ones who hadn’t had the grippe yet or (like Nurse Cavanagh) who were too rattled to do without the sense of protection offered by that fragile layer of gauze.
Twenty hours’ work on four hours’ sleep!
That from a girlish voice behind me. I recognised her as one of this year’s crop of probies; being new to full-time ward work, probationers lacked our stamina.
They’re bedding patients down on the floor now, a doctor grumbled. I call that unhygienic.
His friend said, Better than turning them away, I suppose.
I glanced around, and it struck me that we were a botched lot. Several of these doctors were distinctly elderly, but the hospital needed them to stay on till the end of the war, filling in for younger ones who’d enlisted. I saw doctors and nurses who’d been sent home from the front with some harm done but not enough for a full service pension, so here they were again despite their limps and scars, asthma, migraines, colitis, malarial episodes, or TB; one nurse from Children’s Surgical struggled with a chronic conviction that insects were crawling all over her.
I was two from the head of the line now. My stomach rumbled.
I smiled at Gladys Horgan, squeezing towards me through the knot of bodies at the food table. We’d been great pals during training almost a decade ago, though we’d seen less of each other once I went into midwifery and she into eye and ear. Some of our class had ended up working in private hospitals or nursing homes; between those who’d left to marry or who’d quit due to painful feet or nerve strain, there weren’t many of us still around. Gladys lived in at the hospital with a gang of other nurses, and I lodged with Tim, which was another thing that had divided us, I suppose; when I went off shift, my first thought was always for my brother.
Gladys scolded: Shouldn’t you be on leave?
Nixed at the eleventh hour.
Ah, of course it would be. Well, soldier on.
You too, Gladys.
Must rush, she said. Oh, there’s instant coffee.
I made a face.
Have you tried it?
Once, for the novelty, but it’s nasty stuff.
Whatever keeps me going…Gladys drained her cup, smacked her lips, and left the mug on the dirty-dishes table.
I didn’t want to stay without anyone to talk to, so I collected some watery cocoa and a slice of war bread, which was always dark but varied in its adulterations—barley, oats, and rye, certainly, but one might find soya in there too, beans, sago, even the odd chip of wood.
- “Don’t believe history repeats itself? Read this book . . . an arresting new page turner of a novel . . . it unfolds at the pace of a thriller.”—Karen Thompson Walker, New York Times
- “A deft, lyrical and sometimes even cheeky writer . . . [Donoghue] has given us our first pandemic caregiver novel -- an engrossing and inadvertently topical story about health care workers inside small rooms fighting to preserve life.”—Maureen Corrigan, NPR
- “Donoghue has fashioned a tale of heroism that reads like a thriller, complete with gripping action sequences, mortal menaces and triumphs all the more exhilarating for being rare and hard-fought."—Wendy Smith, Washington Post
- “Donoghue has pulled off another feat: She wrote a book about a 100-year-old flu that feels completely current, down to the same frustrations and tensions and hopes and dangers. And she did it without even knowing just how relevant it would be -- how well and frighteningly her own reimagining of a historical catastrophe would square with our actual living experience of its modern sequel.”—Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times
- “[Donoghue] conjures up a claustrophobic space -- And into it she brings the world. . . Our collective memory is now a little better anchored, a little more vivid -- thanks to Emma Donoghue.”—Laura Spinney, Wired
- “A visceral, harrowing, and revelatory vision of life, death, and love in a time of pandemic. This novel is stunning.”—Emily St. John Mandel, author of The Glass Hotel and Station Eleven
- “Captures the reality and valor of frontline women during a global health crisis.”—Parade
- "Echoes of our current catastrophe abound -- social distancing and confusing messaging among them -- but the heroine copes with so many turn-of-the-century medical horrors that you’ll hardly remember you’re reading a pandemic novel in the first place."—Entertainment Weekly
- "With an urgency that brilliantly captures the high-stakes horror and exhilaration of life on a pandemic’s front lines, the Room author centers her latest spine-tingler on a maternity ward nurse charged with keeping new mothers -- and herself -- safe."—O Magazine
- "Darkly compelling, illuminated by the light of compassion and tenderness: Donoghue's best novel since Room."—Kirkus Reviews
- "Donoghue offers vivid characters and a gripping portrait of a world beset by a pandemic and political uncertainty. A fascinating read in these difficult times."—Booklist
- "Searing . . . Donoghue's evocation of the 1918 flu, and the valor it demands of health-care workers, will stay with readers."—Publishers Weekly
- "Both urgent and eerily prescient . . . Donoghue masterfully conjures a suffocating space, this time the glorified closet where Julia helps women give birth. . . . the nonstop action of the maternity ward is so compelling."—Time
- On Sale
- Jul 6, 2021
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Back Bay Books