A Pandemic Tale in the Time of COVID-19

There’s something meta in reading a book about a plague almost one year into the Coronavirus pandemic. There were so many moments throughout Emma Donoghue‘s latest novel, The Pull of the Stars, that hit home. There were lines that made me stop, details that, just a few months ago, would have been senseless, but are now entirely relatable.

The book tells the story of three women brought together by the deadly flu of 1918. The narrator, Julia Power, is a nurse in Dublin’s city hospital, where she meets Bridie Sweeney, a young volunteer, and Kathleen Lynn, a doctor who is also a member of the rebel party fighting for Irish independence (Lynn is a real historical figure). Over the course of three days the women are bonded as they fight for the lives of their patients — pregnant women sick with the unmerciful flu that is killing more people than the first World War.

The book, which was released in July, seems especially timely. Themes are explored that are hyper relevant at the moment, such as the ways we often blame the sick for their illness, stigmatize those that find themselves infected with COVID (pandemic shaming, as it’s now being called), and the messy and heartbreaking roles of front line workers.

While I am not one of those people jumping to read books about the coronavirus pandemic or watch shows that chronicle what we are living each day, I found Donoghue’s book to be not only gripping but moving. We know that the 1918 pandemic ushered in a new era of freedom, the roaring 20’s, and that society rebuilt itself. We can view these events more objectively, while still finding relevancy to the situation we find ourselves in today. In this way, the book is helpful, almost instructional, instead of being a plot without answers, something that merely rifts on the troubles of the moment without providing insight.

There are many theories around the current pandemic. Some believe it is a sign from God, others believe it was generated from a rabid bat, and still others are convinced it was cooked up in a Chinese lab. It is in our nature as humans to seek answers or explanations to problems of this size. As Dr. Lynn tells Julia Power in the book, “That’s what influenza means, she said. Influenza delle stelle — the influence of the stars. Medieval Italians thought that the heavens were governing their fates, that people were quite literally star-crossed.” I’m not sure if we are star-crossed or if there is an underlying meaning to all of this. What I do know is that there is hope. If The Pull of the Stars is about anything, it is about overcoming obstacles and those who work tirelessly to do so. The heroes then, as today, are the front line and healthcare workers reporting each day to fight as if in battle. The book is a salute to them, and it is a worthy one.