The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

 

“We all lived in an unwalled city, that was it. I saw lines scored across the map of Ireland; carved all over the globe. Train tracks, roads, shipping channels, a web of human traffic that connected all all nations into one great suffer body.”


This is the third novel I’ve read by Emma Donoghue and I’m afraid to say that it just didn’t quite work for me. Maybe I shouldn’t have approached The Pull of the Stars with such high expectations. Or maybe these kind of historical novels are just not my ‘thing’ (I was similarly underwhelmed by
A Long Petal of the Sea and The Night Watchman).
Given the current pandemic The Pull of the Stars, set in a maternity ward in Dublin during the 1918 influenza and the close of WWI, makes for an eerily pertinent read. This is a meticulously researched novel, from the blow by blow descriptions of medical procedures to the grimly evocative depiction of the environment in which our narrator, a nurse, works. Although the novel is set over the course of three days, Donoghue renders all too vividly the stark circumstances of the various women under Julia’s care. We witness the physical and emotional toll that result from too many pregnancies, the stigma attached to unmarried mothers and the mistreatment of their children, and the extreme abuse that ‘fallen women’ experienced in the Magdalene laundries. The lives of these women and children are shaped by injustices—such as sexual/physical abuse, poverty, illness, being forced into labour, being separated from your child—and Donoghue is unflinching in revealing just how horrific their realities are.
In spite of this, I just couldn’t help but to find the bluntness of her prose to be detrimental to my reading experience. While her unvarnished style does suit both the setting and the subject matter, it also distanced me, especially from Julia. She felt like a barely delineated character, often seeming to exist in order to explain things or provide ‘modern’ readers with context (especially one of her later discussions about the ‘homes’ and Magdalene laundries with Birdie). She was a very undefined character, a generic take on a good ‘nurse’. Doctor Kathleen Lynn, a far more interesting figure, sadly plays only a minor role in the story. Birdie was okay, although at times I had a hard time believing in her. The romance sprung from nowhere and didn’t really convince me either (and this is coming from someone who sees everything through sapphic-tinted glasses). If anything the ‘love’ story seemed to exist only to add an unnecessary layer of drama, unnecessary especially considering that the novel was quite tragic without it. The ending, more suited to a historical melodrama, was painfully clichéd.
The thin plot too did little to engage me. Although the lives and stories of the women in the ward were both compelling and distressing, I just didn’t particularly care for Julia’s narrative. Perhaps if this had been a work of nonfiction, I would have appreciated it more.
I don’t consider myself squeamish but The Pull of the Stars was almost relentless in the way it detailed EVERYTHING. Maybe readers who watch One Born Every Minute will be able to cope with it but I just could have done without it.
Another thing I could have done without is the lack of quotations mark. When will this trend stop?

Although The Pull of the Stars wasn’t my cup of tea, I’m sure that plenty of other readers will find this more riveting than I did.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
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Akin by Emma Donoghue — book review

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“He and this boy were quite alien to each other, he decide. Yet, in an odd way, akin.”

Akin tells the touching story of Noah Selvaggio, a retired seventy-nine year old chemistry professor, and his eleven year old great-nephew, Michael Young. Noah is a widower who has few remaining connections in the world and his fairly quiet existence is thrown out of balance when he is more or less cajoled into becoming Michael’s temporary carer. Michael’s mother is in prison, his father, Noah’s nephew, died of an overdose, and his maternal grandmother has recently passed away. Noah is, quite understandably, reticent to the idea of looking after Michael…he is aware of the limitations that come with his age, and having never had any contact with Michael or his mother, he feels a mixture of guilt and unease at this sudden ‘reunion’.
Yet, given the circumstances, not only does he find himself accepting to briefly take on this role but he is also forced to take Michael with him in a much overdue trip to Nice, Noah’s place of birth.

“And Mr. Selvaggio is your great-uncle, which is another kind of uncle.”
“What’s so great about him?” Micheal wanted to know.
Whether that was ignorance or wit, it did make Noah smile.”

The simple and unadorned narrative takes us alongside Noah and Michael’s in their stay in Nice. We follow them as they walk around Nice, eat a lot, visit museums and other historical sites. All the while Noah is also preoccupied with a mystery of sorts…having come across as some old photos Noah begins to fear that his mother might have been hiding something…his mind begins to formulate different kind of theories regarding his mother’s actions in WWII: was she a collaborator?

“Such convoluted grammar death required: what tense to describe the hypothetical emotions of a woman who didn’t exist anymore?”

Michael’s constant presence however demands Noah’s undivided attention. The child is rude and bratty, and treats Noah with suspicion and contempt. The two are at odds from the very start. Noah, who spend most of his days living in the past, attempts to make some sort of connection with Michael by acting as a tour guide of sorts. He also reiterates his and Michaels’s family history (Noah’s grandfather was a famous photographer) as a way of reinforcing their familial bond. Michael’s attention however seems wholly devoted to his phone. He swears a lot, demands junk food all the time, and is bored by Noah and his ‘lessons’.
There is a dissonance between the two: the things that have shaped Noah’s life seems to be of little relevance to Michael. At the same time Michael has experienced hardships that Noah finds difficulty to comprehend.

“In the pictures Michael looked older, Noah thought; harder. But really, eleven — that was barely formed.”

The two wander about Nice, often a despondent Michael’s following in Noah’s stead. The city seems to stir something within Noah so that he finds himself compelled to discover the truth about his mother.
Interrogating the past brings to light some deeply disturbing facts. Nice’s own history, the Excelsior Hotel (which happens to be the hotel Noah and Michael are staying in), the risks taken by members of the resistance, the torture they could be made to endure…the narrative portrays in sharp clarity one of the darkest periods of human history.

The dynamic between Noah and Michael eases some of the tension from this perusal of the past. The quarrels had a very natural flow to them; at time they seemed to escalate out of nothing, while in other instances they boiled down to nothing. They constantly seemed exasperated by one another, and I soon grew accustomed to the rhythm of their conversations.
I found myself deeply caring for Noah. His attempts to reach Michael could be both sweet and awkward, and Michael too, in spite of his horrible behaviour, slowly grew on me.

“Why don’t you start it now?”
“I’m good.”
Funny how that had come to mean no.

This genuine story offers us with plenty of thoughtful reflections regarding the differences and similarities between Noah and Michael’s generations. While Michael easily navigates the ‘modern’ world, Noah is accustomed to a different one.
The novel also broaches many subjects—topical and non—in a very frank and natural way; commentaries regarding America and France are embedded in a very smooth manner, so that it never feels overdone.

“How could you do your homework if you didn’t even have a home to work in?”

I was moved by Noah’s internal turmoils, by his introspections and examinations that move between past and present. His ‘kinship’ with Michael was rendered slowly and subtly, so that their relationship never blossoms into an unlikely affectionate bond but the story leaves us with possibility of a camaraderie of sorts between the two.
Filled with equal parts humour and heart, Akin is a wonderfully compelling novel, one that I would happily read again.

“He supposed it was always that way with the dead; they slid away before we knew enough to ask them the right questions. All we could do was remember them, as much as we could remember of them, whether it was accurate or not Walk the same streets that they’d walked; take our turn.”

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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