The Pull of the Stars: a Book Review

I have blogged before about the significant increase in the number of books I have read over the last two years. The uptick started before the pandemic was even a thing, but has been helped on dramatically by the extra downtime over the last year. I have been lucky enough to read (and listen to on audiobook CD) some fantastic books (and one or two probably best forgotten). Yet, in all that time, I have managed to avoid doing book reviews and recommendations.

Now, I am well aware there are countless book reviewers and review sites out there (goodreads being the most obvious), without even considering reviews on the likes of Amazon directly. Why, you might be asking, would I believe adding my own thoughts to the extensive pile of reviews is helpful?

I think there are two answers to this. Firstly, as I have said already, I have really enjoyed most of the books I have read this year, and I want share them with other people. Secondly, given you are following my blog/Twitter/Instagram/Facebook you probably have at least a passing interest in the things I like. While not every book I have read/am reading/will read will tickle your fancy, I would imagine some might.

With this in mind, I thought I would make a start with the book I have just finished reading, before working through my back catalogue in the not too distant future.

The Pull of the Stars

***While I have made every attempt to avoid it, the following may contain spoilers, obviously… ***

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I picked up The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue in a service station. Sitting on the best seller list, I must admit I would often pass this section by. Seeing the book on offer, I found I could not resist, and I am certainly glad bought a copy.

Set in Dublin in 1918, the story follows the work of a nurse/midwife and her assistant at the height of the Spanish Flu Pandemic. With minimal resources, overwhelming patient numbers and tragedy round every corner, this book is a horrifying, yet compelling, look at life in a pandemic. Donoghue states at the end of the book she had completed her final draft before the COVID pandemic began, but the timing and parallels to our current situation are obvious.

What I really liked

  1. The characters in this book are warm, likeable and fundamentally interesting. Their development over what is a short space of story time is remarkable, and the relationship which forms between the two main characters is as heart warming as it is tragic.
  2. The hospital setting is the third great character in this book. Beautifully described by Donoghue, you will be instantly transported back into the desperately deprived world of war time Dublin. And to set the majority of the book in a room big enough only for three beds and a desk adds to the sense of all encompassing dread.
  3. While I try to switch off from the world of medicine as far as possible when I am not working, the medical (or more accurately obstetric) detail in this book adds a richness to the world being crafted. It has been a while since I was on a labour ward (and nearly a hundred years later than the setting of the book) but the description of procedures and treatments feel entirely believable and well researched.
  4. Finally, the wider context of the book is fascinating. From the Easter Rising, to the Dublin slums, the First World War and of course the Spanish Flu, the book deftly covers a dark period of human history. Whether you have an understanding of the period or not, Donoghue careful carries you through the world she has crafted, giving you just enough background without being heavy on the exposition to keep the story flowing.

The less good bits

  1. The writing style, the writing style, the writing style! Not only is it set in the first person (a personal dislike of mine), the book is written in only four chapters (sections? parts?). With the first chapter taking place over 93 pages without any breaks in the prose, it can be a hard slog. Added to this, Donoghue has chosen to dispense with speech marks throughout the book. On the whole she manages this well, but at times I lost who was speaking (if someone was speaking at all). While a stylistic choice for the author I’m sure, I’m not certain it adds anything to the book.
  2. The pacing of the book feels a little off at times. Set over approximately two and a half days, the continuous story feels rushed at times (labour seems to come and go for one women in the space of a page), at others it begins to drag. It is not a deal breaker for the book, but it does make it hard going at times.
  3. Finally, and certainly not the most important point, the plot is fairly predictable. For this book I don’t think it matters, the focus on the characters is much more important, but I did feel a pang of disappointment when exactly what I had predicted near the start finally occurred.

Summary

Characters: believable, warm, instantly likeable
Plot: a little predictable
Setting: fascinating
Style: umm…
Who should buy this book?: anyone with even a passing interest in the period, Irish history or the workings of the beginnings of modern midwifery

Despite the downsides, they are far outweighed by the beauty of this book. If you have not yet grabbed your copy, make sure it is on your list for your next book hunting trip.

Have you read The Pull of the Stars or got it on the TBR pile? Let me know what you think in the comments below.

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