The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
Julia Power is proud of her nursing skills and qualifications but, on the eve of her thirtieth birthday, she hadn’t expected to have sole charge of a makeshift three-bedded ward for expectant mothers who also have flu. But she rises to the occasion, with the help of a young volunteer.
At first, Julia is unimpressed by Bridie Sweeney who, in her early twenties, seems to know so little about the world. But, although, due to growing up in an abusive church-run orphanage, she’s malnourished and uneducated, she’s bright, keen and quick to learn. As the crisis brings the two women closer, Julia discovers the dark secrets of the country she loves.
Another woman, Dr Kathleen Lynn (based on a real person) opens Julia’s eyes to Irish nationalism, when she’s forced to consider why a humanitarian like Dr Lynn should take up arms. Hitherto loyal to Britain, and to her shell-shocked brother with whom she lives, the apparent contradiction forces Julia to question her beliefs. Thanks to Bridie, and the three women under their care – a wealthy Protestant; a ‘fallen woman’ from a (now notorious) mother and baby home; and a terrified teenager who thinks she’ll birth her baby through her navel – Julia must also reassess her attitudes to authority, trauma, sexuality and motherhood.
Although at times the author’s research takes priority over story, I found it so interesting, I can’t complain. The stakes are so high – literally a matter of life and death – the tension so palpable, I stayed up late to finish the book. However, anyone who is currently pregnant, or has experienced a traumatic birth, might want to read it at another time.
Overall, it’s an accessible and engaging story about a crucial point in Irish history and (the sometimes unnecessary) hardships of women’s lives. It was published by Picador last year, and I did try to read a PDF copy kindly sent to me by a publicist at the time, but I’m glad I waited to buy the paperback. It’s another contender for my favourite reads of the year.
The Spinning House Affair by Jane Taylor
To protect the morality of the male students, the serving girls and suchlike who made their education possible were closely policed. The merest suspicion of unauthorised association could send the woman to the lockhouse, with no right of appeal. Rose Whipple, around whom this novel revolves, is initially incarcerated when she automatically raises her hand to wave back at an undergraduate who is actually waving at a friend.
The author spreads her net wide to encompass not only Rose’s tragedy, but the friends and family of the man who unwittingly initiates it, and the newspapermen who campaign against the injustice. While the different perspectives make the novel intellectually interesting, I found it somewhat distancing emotionally.
I was too preoccupied last week with a certain book launch to produce a 99-word story in response to Charli’s flash fiction challenge. I’m not beating myself up about it, but I was disappointed, as I have shown up every week for months, probably years. But I’m back with a vengeance this week with a very dark story on the theme of these two novels and mine.
He had her walk to heel initially, on a two-metre leash. As she earned his trust, he gave her leeway, to trot ahead to chase some shiny bauble or pause to sniff a flower. But he never took her out without a taser and packet of chocolate-drop rewards. He thought he’d tamed her until, unfettered in woodland, she ran. It took two days, three men and four bullets to rein her in. Now his wife hobbles happily around home and hearth, except when shrapnel pains her. Then he blames himself for pushing her beyond the boundaries of her sex.