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'Two days after I delivered my last draft, the WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic' - Emma Donoghue's timely new novel is set in Ireland during Spanish Flu outbreak

Emma Donoghue's new novel The Pull of the Stars is set in Ireland during the devastating Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918. The Room author explains how she came to write such a timely book


Author Emma Donoghue

Author Emma Donoghue

Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay in the film of Room

Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay in the film of Room

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

Author Emma Donoghue

The Great Flu of 1918-19 - misnamed the Spanish Flu by the governments of nations involved in the First World War, so as not to depress morale by admitting that this new strain of influenza was cutting a swathe through their populations too - hit the whole world hard, at the end of more than four years of devastating conflict.

Best estimates say 3pc of the global population died of it - far more than in the war's battles and bombings.

In Ireland, the mortality rate was by no means that high - perhaps 0.7pc, which still meant more than 20,000 people were lost. (The typical winter flu carried off old people, but the Great Flu was known for targeting young adults instead, so a whole generation of children were orphaned by it.)

So why would I choose Dublin as my setting for a novel about that pandemic, when I began to write The Pull of the Stars on the centenary of the outbreak, back in October 2018?

One reason was authenticity: I wanted to create an absolutely credible drama set in one small maternity ward where women with bad cases of the new flu would be sent if they were also heavily pregnant, because before and after labour women and their babies were particularly vulnerable to this virus's effects.

I thought I could get the voices of my protagonist Nurse Julia Power, Doctor Kathleen Lynn (the one real historical figure in the novel), and their mostly working-class patients more right, and more flavourful, if I drew on the Hiberno-English I grew up with, and its flair for loquaciousness and dark humour.

My title echoes Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars, because his plays (performed at the Abbey) were my first glimpse into the lives of the Dublin poor and those ground-down, heroic mammies.

But I also liked the idea of an Irish setting because that meant taking an already complicated situation - a pandemic, hard on the heels of a world war - and throwing in the extra complication of our lurch towards independence.

I drew a lot on two excellent histories of the crisis, Caitriona Foley's The Last Great Plague: The Great Flu Epidemic in Ireland 1918-19 and Ida Milne's Stacking the Coffins: Influenza, War and Revolution in Ireland 1918-19 (as someone who has published academic studies as well as fiction, I know how much the latter often draws on the tireless and pretty much unpaid research and analysis that goes into the former).

If (allow me to generalise wildly) my grandparents' generation was mostly shocked and unimpressed by the Easter Rising in 1916, but mostly voted for Sinn Féin in 1919, then the pace of changing opinion in those years must have been startlingly rapid, I thought. What if I took a nurse who feels she has "no time for politics" and put her through the extraordinary peak of the epidemic, working past the point of exhaustion in an understaffed, understocked hospital?

Might she begin to question both the British Government's and the Catholic Church's roles in shaping the lives of her slum-dwelling, malnourished, ever-pregnant patients?

How might she be changed, as the country around her changed?

Two days after I delivered my last draft of The Pull of the Stars, the WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic. The novel wasn't due to come out till 2021, but my publishers decided it was so timely they should move it up to summer.

I didn't add a single echo of today to the novel, in the copy-editing process; it felt all too weirdly similar already. Maybe that's because the fear of invisible germs, weighed against the need to carry on with life anyway, is the same in any time and place.

The Pull of the Stars is called that because influenza comes from influence - Renaissance Italians thought the illness was caused by the influence of the stars.

But in researching and writing this novel, and even more as I've watched how Covid-19 has played out under different political regimes across the world, I've become more and more aware that health is political: a human right snatched away from so many, whether at the point when they're born (the most dangerous single day in a life) or later, but still too early.

Boris Johnson's notoriously vague 'Stay Alert' reminds me of the 1918 public information posters headed 'Save Yourself From Influenza': victim-blaming, across the centuries. And when I hear blustering leaders blaming the poor - especially Black communities - for what they imply are self-inflicted pre-existing conditions that leave them vulnerable to coronavirus, I think of those who died in 1918 partly because they were too tired, ill-fed or weakened by previous sickness to ward this one off. Because (like migrant farm workers today, say) they were in no position to follow useless government advice along the lines of, 'On feeling the first symptom of influenza, take to your bed and rest for a fortnight'.

This may all sound grim, but as usual I found it cathartic and even cheering to set a story in dark times, and even find some light at the end of it.

I'm glad to be publishing a novel that shines a spotlight on the astonishing courage and stamina of frontline healthcare workers (so many of them women).

I'm deeply grateful that our state of scientific knowledge is so much better than in 1918, when all doctors could offer bad flu cases was aspirin or whiskey.

This too shall pass, says the medieval Persian proverb. Or as Kathleen Lynn in my novel puts it, "the human race settles on terms with every plague in the end".

Emma Donoghue is the author of novels including Room, The Wonder and Akin. The Pull of the Stars is published on July 21 by Picador Books

A Writer's llfe: Packed with generous sympathy

Emma Donoghue was born in Dublin in 1969, the youngest of eight children. Her father was the literary critic, Denis Donoghue. She went to UCD and studied English and French, then moved to England and did a PhD at Cambridge. She has written screenplays, short stories, children's books and non-fiction as well as novels, and counts herself lucky enough to never have had an "honest job" since being sacked after a single summer month as a chambermaid.

In 2004, Publishers Weekly described her as "distinguished by her generous sympathy for her characters, sinuous prose and an imaginative range that may soon rival that of AS Byatt or Margaret Atwood".

In 2010 she published Room, an international bestseller that was shortlisted for the Man Booker and Orange Prize, and won the Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year, along with many other awards.

Room was very soon made into a film directed by Lenny Abrahamson, for which Emma wrote the screenplay. It won the Canadian Screen Award for Best Film, the Irish Film and Television Academy Award for Best Film, among many other awards. Emma now lives in London, Ontario, with Chris Roulston and their children, Finn and Una.

In 2011, she wrote a wise and funny piece on parenting: "If you're out in public with your kids, it can feel as though the CCTV cameras are always trained your way. Every parent I know jokes about the nightmarish possibility of being reported to Child Protection Services. You can bring down the wrath of a stranger simply by failing to keep a broad-brimmed sunhat on your child or letting her race around with a lollipop in her mouth.

"You might think that, having defied convention when it came to conception (anonymous donor, two mothers, as I tell anyone at the playground rash enough to ask 'is their dad tall?'), I'd be relaxed about what people thought of my parenting at the micro level. But no, I still get that Bad Mum Blush when our daughter bloodies her knee and I - not having a plaster - have to improvise with an old tissue."

Emily Hourican

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