Tag Archives: The Great War

#BookReview ‘The Pull of the Stars’ by @EDonoghueWriter #historical

In Dublin, 1918, it is a time of immense global and social change. Emma Donoghue’s latest novel The Pull of the Stars takes place almost exclusively in a cramped three-bed fever ward in an understaffed hospital. All patients are pregnant and quarantined while the world is racked by war and influenza. Both of these are unpredictable, killing at random, lasting longer than predicted and classless. This is an at times breath-taking, touching and emotional novel that sucks you into a feverish dream so you want to read on and on. Emma Donoghue

Taking place over three days, Nurse Power arrives for work to find herself temporarily in charge. Donoghue excels at the ordinary detail of Julia’s life, her journey to work, the arbitrary rules of the matron, the needs at home of her war-damaged soldier brother Tim who is now mute. On the day the story stars, Julia’s only help comes from an untrained young volunteer, Bridie McSweeney, who acts as a runner to find doctor or orderly as required. The figure of three recurs – three beds, three days, three key characters. The third, Doctor Kathleen Lynn, is a real person, her history documented. She was arrested during the 1916 Easter Rising and in The Pull of the Stars is wanted by the police as a rebel. Power and McSweeney are Donoghue’s inventions. Every character, major and minor, is touched by the twin enemies of war and flu.

Gradually we fall under the spell of Donoghue’s story as Julia and Bridie attend to the needs of their patients in the room with its handwritten note on the door, Maternity/Fever. As temperatures rise and coughs hack, labour pains rise and fall. Donoghue doesn’t skimp on the detail of labour, this isn’t for the squeamish, but she writes with such skill that makes you care for her patients too.

This novel pulls you into its drama and won’t let you go until the end. The ebb and flow of each patient’s condition, Julia’s never-ending fight to help them despite the lack of support, the joy of birth and grief of death, the irreverence and youth brought into the room by Bridie, the quiet and resolute calm of Doctor Lynn, are woven together to create a micro portrayal in this small room of the world in 1918. And bound into every page is the strength and hope of love. I read this book in two sittings.

Researched and written prior to Covid-19, this book is an eerie glimpse into how the Spanish Flu epidemic ravaged through a world at war a century ago, distracted and ill-equipped to deal with it.

A small grumble – I find the lack of speech marks jarring.

Read my reviews of these books by Emma Donoghue:-
Frog Music
The Wonder
And read the first paragraph of Room. [35]

If you like this, try:-
A Single Thread’ by Tracy Chevalier
Life Class’ by Pat Barker
A Long Long Way’ by Sebastian Barry

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
THE PULL OF THE STARS by @EDonoghueWriter #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-4Ub via @SandraDanby

Book review: Wake

wake by anna hope 4-1-14Amongst the profusion of novels about the Great War, Wake stood out for me from the rest because it is about the aftermath rather than the fighting. The spine of the narrative is the journey of the body to be entombed in Westminster Abbey as the ‘Unknown Soldier’. I have visited the tomb but had not considered its selection, the post-war politics and social consequences of choosing one soldier’s remains rather than another. Anna Hope handles a delicate topic – isn’t everything to do with war emotionally-delicate? – with confidence. Wake is a powerful novel by a debut author.

There is something unsettling about the first scenes where un-named soldiers drive out into what was no-man’s-land, not knowing where they are going or why. They are directed to dig up the remains of a soldier: unidentified soldiers dig up the remains of an unidentified victim. Four bodies are laid out, not so much bodies as heaps of remains. A Brigadier-General closes his eyes and rests his hand on one of the stretchers, this body is put into a thin wooden coffin. The three not chosen are put into a shell hole at the side of the road, a chaplain says a short prayer, and then re-buried. The chosen one is taken to London.

Three storylines run parallel to this central spine. Hettie and Di are dancers at the Hammersmith Palais. Charging 6d for a dance, Hettie is skilled at spotting the injured soldiers who are disguising the lack of a limb, she is skilled at matching the rhythm of her dancing to theirs. Dancing is the bright spot in her life; her home is under the shadow of her father’s death and her brother’s shell shock.

Evelyn works in a Government department, her job is grey, her surroundings are grey. She is no longer close to her brother who returned from the war seemingly uninjured but is emotionally removed from life. Every day she deals with former soldiers, struggling to make a new life, and each soldier she sees reminds her of her lover who died in the war. She wants to move on from the war but feels that she, like everyone else, is trapped in a cycle of grief, disability, guilt and memory.

Ada is still grieving for her son, a grief which puts distance between her and her husband. Her solace is her neighbour Ivy, also grieving. Then one day an ex-soldier knocks on the door, wanting to sell her dishcloths, and something happens which sends her to a medium.

All are drawn to the streets of London on November 11th, 1920, looking for catharsis.
‘Wake’ by Anna Hope [published in the UK on January 16, 2014 by Doubleday]

Book review: The Lie

the lie by helen dunmore 2-1-14I found this to be an unbelievably poignant novel. In The Lie, Daniel Branwell has returned home to Cornwall from The Great War. The stories of his childhood, his war, and his return are interwoven seamlessly. It is also the story of all the lost men who returned from fighting in 1918 and didn’t know where to go or what to do. They faced their futures alone, unsure if they were mad, if their memories of war were correct or whether they were strong enough to resist the memories of carnage. Dan’s life unfolds like a thriller, with mysteries and suspicions, so that I turned the pages looking for answers and before I knew it I had reached the end.

Dunmore is an accomplished novelist who handles her emotionally explosive subject with sure hands, juxtaposing the daily reality of post-war Cornwall with Dan’s memories, perhaps true, perhaps confused, of battle. Truth is the unknown. The war is in every move Dan makes, every thought, every dream. Needing food, he digs the earth to plant vegetables but cannot escape the battlefield: “It was the smell of earth. Not clean earth, turned up by spade or the fork, to be sunned and watered. This earth had nothing to do with growth. It was raw and slimy, blown apart in great clods, churned to greasy, liquid mud that sucked down men or horses. It was earth that should have stayed deep and hidden, but was exposed in all its filth, corrosive, eating away at the bodies that had to live in it. It breathed into me from its wet mouth.”

Soil is an important presence throughout the book. Dan is a gardener, a skill he soon finds on joining the army will not exempt him from fighting as it does the blacksmiths, chefs and mechanics. “Skilled men had their hands full, and weren’t likely to find themselves in the fire-trench. But there wasn’t any call for a gardener. You’d be marched through a village which had been knocked to bits by shelling, and all there’d be left of a hundred gardens was a bit of green straggling out of a gash in a wall.” Instead, Dan digs. Fields don’t look the same as the fields in Cornwall. “Once you got near the line, there wasn’t much you could recognise as a field, any more than the woods were woods. It was all a jumble.”

His childhood in Cornwall with his best friend Frederick, and Frederick’s sister Felicia, resonates throughout the book. Their differences – poor boy and rich boy, the squaddie and the officer – are at the centre of the book. Dan visits their large house with its library full of shiny red-leather bound volumes, smuggling out one book at a time up his jumper. He reads and memorizes: “I hoarded new words and brought them out like coins.” Frederick, who is sent to private school, has no mind for books and envies Dan’s photographic memory. But when war comes, Frederick is sent to officer school and Dan to basic camp.

In Belgium, before the night-time trench raid which changes their lives, Frederick asks Dan to recite a poem. The prospects of the two men are so fragile that the juxtaposition of war and the poem by Matthew Arnold cannot help but be moving:

“And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

When Dan returns to Cornwall he has nowhere to go. As he struggles to survive, shunning company, preferring solitude, he meets Felicia again. The memories come flooding back and he struggles to repel them.
‘The Lie’ by Helen Dunmore [Hutchinson, published in the UK January 16, 2014]