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Emma Donoghue fills her pandemic period piece with death and historical detail

Fiction: The Pull of the Stars

Emma Donoghue

Picador, 304 pages, hardback €16.99; e-book £8.99

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Childbirth at a knife edge: Emma Donoghue. Photo by Doug O’Connor

Childbirth at a knife edge: Emma Donoghue. Photo by Doug O’Connor

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

Childbirth at a knife edge: Emma Donoghue. Photo by Doug O’Connor

The 1918 'Spanish' flu, unlike Covid-19, struck hard at people in their prime. "This new flu was an uncanny plague, scything down swathes of men and women in the full bloom of their youth," explains the narrator of Emma Donoghue's new novel, "and wasn't this flu infamous for expelling babies before their time?"  

Pregnant women were at a high risk from the "grip" and it is into this perilous setting The Pull of the Stars takes us. Death, by influenza, or "the influence of the stars", is the motif of this absurdly pertinent book.

Written before the pandemic, though publication was moved forward to this month, Donoghue's 13th novel is set in Dublin during three exceptionally dramatic days in the small lying-in maternity ward looked after by Nurse Julia Power, a 30-year-old "spinster". The country is also in the grip of war, and Nurse Power has a wounded brother at home, returned from the front.