‘Influenza delle stelle – the influence of the stars’ 

Sounds almost romantic doesn’t it, the derivation of the word influenza? But nothing could be less romantic than this gruelling account of a maternity ward in the midst of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. It’s a kind of retro Call the Midwife meets Contagion, some palpable and visceral descriptions of the birthing process in a 1918 Dublin hospital consumed by the Spanish flu. Historically fascinating to read of a previous pandemic and consider the parallels with the situation we’re facing. There’s something almost spooky about Donoghue’s prescience for a novel started in 2018 before anyone had heard of Covid-19.

The book is divided into sections titled red, brown, blue, black which is apparently the colour a patient’s skin turns as their flu progresses. A hint too that the outcome of the book may not be the happiest. For all that the subject matter is largely bleak the author’s knack for narrative draws us into the life of Nurse Julia Power and encourages us to view this situation from her perspective. Obviously WW1 imposes its presence on the book too opening up considerations of PTSD and its management. Julia lives with her brother, Tim, damaged by the war.

There’s an almost claustraphobic feel as the ‘action’ takes place mostly in a small ward over three days but that seems crucial to understand the constraints of working in the situation. The trinity of key characters, Julia, Bridie and Dr. Lynn are all drawn with the hallmarks of Emma Donoghue’s skill in characterisation. With deft descriptions and pertinent dialogue she creates the very essence of these people and what makes them tick. Power’s compassion dominates her actions yet leads her to a poignant introspection as to her future and maybe the future of her country. ‘How would we ever get back to normal after the pandemic?’

I suppose we can look at that with some kind of reverse prophecy because the country did get back to a normal, maybe a new normal so there’s a hint of optimism. But the conclusion of the book was unexpected and open ended. And indeed I think the book as a whole is asking its reader to think about broader implications that go beyond a pandemic; poverty and religion, social class and political affiliations.

It’s a substantial work. Not an uplifting story. If you’re looking for something light and fluffy you won’t get it. You will get a depth of emotion, plenty of heartbreak but all dealt with so competently from the pen of one of Ireland’s finest contemporary authors.

Review by Gill Chedgey

Published by Picador; Main Market edition (29 April 2021)
Paperback, ISBN 978-1529046199