The Pull of the Stars

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Emma Donaghue
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: July 2020 (read Oct. 2020 on Audible)

With everything that’s going on right now, I was super intrigued by the plot of The Pull of the Stars. It’s set in 1918 Ireland during the last global pandemic. The entire book revolves around 30 year old nurse Julia, who works in the maternity ward of the Dublin hospital. However during the pandemic, she is assigned to the pandemic part of the maternity ward, which is where all the women with flu symptoms have been sent.

The Pull of the Stars wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but it was definitely compelling. Emma Donaghue made the somewhat interesting choice to set almost the entire novel within the hospital over a span of only 2-3 days. Throughout that time, we see the strain that Julia is under as a nurse and the limited resources of the hospital due to the pandemic. Donaghue focuses both on the challenges the flu has on the mothers and their labours (in many cases it caused the women to go into pre-mature labour, which obviously complicated the births), as well as the challenges women in general faced during the time period.

At 30, Julia is unmarried and considered a bit of a maid. Besides nursing, she mostly takes care of her brother, who came back from the war severely traumatized. The hospital is extremely understaffed, so they bring in a young volunteer named Bridie to help in the ward. Bridie was raised in the convent by nuns and her situation shines a light on the catholic church and the unfair advantage they took of girls and women without families or who found themselves in bad situations. Bridie was abused by the nuns and then forced to continue working for them to pay off her indenture for the care she received as a girl (even though the nuns are paid by the state). Donaghue explores this theme of abuse of power by the church throughout the novel and I found it really eye-opening and enraging.

Finally, the novel also has a small focus on female doctor, Kathleen Lynn, a former rebel who’s supposedly on the run from police. I liked how Donaghue explored what it meant to be a female doctor at the time, how she was perceived by men, and how her approach to medicine and labour differed from that of the male doctors. She definitely saw more of the humanity of the new mothers when they experienced complications in labour and generally was less judgmental of those who had fallen pregnant outside of wedlock.

So overall I thought it was a really interesting book. The themes were subtle and a lot of time did focus on the new mothers and their complicated births, so I liked how the author explores the other links between church and state, especially since it’s so relevant with the story being set in 1918 Ireland. The only thing I didn’t like is that there’s a hasty romance thrown into the story near the end that felt very much out of place. I get what Donaghue was trying to do and I appreciate her for trying to explore some other themes, but it just didn’t work for me. It was too short lived and I don’t think it really added much to the story overall. 

Otherwise, this was a good book that wasn’t too long or overwritten. I listened to it on audiobook and thought the narrator did a good job.

What the Wind Knows

Rating:
Author: Amy Harmon
Genres: Historical Fiction, Time Travel
Pub. date: Mar. 2019 (read Mar. 2019)

Amy Harmon is such a great writer. She’s written a ton of books, most of which I haven’t read, but I’m pretty sure she started off writing romance. Then she wrote a 2-book fantasy series (The Bird and the Sword), which I really enjoyed, and lately she’s been writing historical novels. So overall I’m pretty impressed with her scope of work and that she’s not afraid to dabble in other genres. I personally love her writing style – it definitely lends itself well to romance because it is a wistful kind of writing – but it really worked well in this book.

What the Wind Knows is a bit of a genre-bending book. I’ve been calling it “Irish Outlander”, because that’s pretty much the closest descriptor I can think of, but it definitely has a very different style than Outlander and that’s really where the comparison ends. This story is initially set in 2001 and focuses on 30 year old author, Anne Gallagher. Anne was raised in America by her grandfather, Eoin, and despite their Irish heritage and the fact the her grandfather grew up in Ireland, she has never been there. When her grandfather passes away, he requests that she finally travel to Ireland to spread his ashes on the loch next to where he grew up.

Eoin was Anne’s only real family and she is heartbroken at losing him. When she rows out into the lake, she finds herself transported to another time, 1921. Her grandfather is just 6 years old and laments the loss of his parents in the Irish uprising. Anne is mistaken for his mother and becomes part of the family. Her reunion with her grandfather provides little incentive to return to future without him, but life in Ireland in 1921 is undeniably difficult as Ireland fights to be free of Great Britain and become her own Republic.

What the Wind Knows is a bit of a slow burn novel, but I loved it. The characters are well realized and the setting and time are enthralling. Books like this are the reason I keep returning to historical fiction. I really wish more authors would branch out from the WWI and WWII fiction, because there is so much other great history to be told in other regions and eras. I should absolutely know more about Ireland’s history than I do. I grew up in Newfoundland and Ireland has had a huge influence on my own history, so I should really know more about it. I knew very little about the uprising and Ireland’s fight for independence and this was a really great introduction. I feel like there’s so much more to be learned, but it does a good job at introducing you to the hardships that existed in Ireland at this time and how Ireland descended into it’s own civil war in the 1920’s.

While this story is fiction (I mean, it has time travel, so no duh), it does feature some pretty well-known Irish historical figures, the most predominant of which is Michael Collins, who signed a treaty with England to give Ireland independent status, while still being a part of the British dominion. Previously the Irish had been united against the English, but the treaty marked a split between the Irish people – those who supported the progress made by Collins in the fight for independence, and those who demanded a full Republic and split from the Brits.

This history provides the backdrop for the story, but at its core this is still a love story. After the death of his parents, little Eoin was looked after by their good friend, doctor Thomas Smith. It is in Smith’s home that Eoin grows up and Anne and Thomas develop a close relationship. Anne had done a fair bit of research about Ireland for a new book she was planning to write, so she is distraught by the history that she knows will come to pass in Ireland and whether it is in her capacity to change it. She is also acutely aware that she doesn’t not truly understand or fit in in this time and sometimes feels a pull from the loch to return to her time.

I think Harmon did a great job at capturing the history and the two sides of this conflict, but she also writes a damn good love story. I love Outlander, but it’s really more of a trashy Scottish romp than Romance with a capital R. This book is much more soft spoken and I really grew to love all the characters. There’s nothing too surprising in the book, yet I still never knew where the plot was going to go. The writing is dreamy, but there’s still a real tension between the characters that makes you both excited and nervous for them. Time travel is cyclical in nature and because Anne exists in both present day and the past, the reader doesn’t know which came first and whether one will negate the other. If this love story didn’t exist in Eoin’s history, then can it possibly exist in his future? You fall so in love with the characters, but fear for them because you don’t know whether their love is destined to survive.

Overall, I loved the book and the ending. Beautiful writing, beautiful setting, beautiful characters!