I can’t remember a novel gripping me from start to finish like this one. That old cliché ‘I couldn’t put it down’ was literally true – I read it in bed, in the kitchen while cooking, and instead of watching my favourite TV programmes.
The time and place – 1918 Dublin – are beautifully drawn. In fact, Emma Donoghue’s description of daily life with distinct Victorian overtones is mesmerising.
Reeling from the slaughter of the Great War, still coming to terms with the violence of the 1916 uprising, this latest blow – the advent of Spanish Flu, even more deadly than the coronavirus we face today – is shattering. Donoghue’s story unfolds in real time over three days, in a tiny, cramped hospital ward for expectant women who have come down with the virus. It threatens them, their unborn babies, and the heroine of this story – the woman who must try to save them all: Nurse Julia Power.
This extraordinary story will resonate strongly with any woman who has experienced pregnancy. The patients in Nurse Power’s dark, understaffed, overcrowded little ward are fearful. Not only are they almost at full term, they have contracted a virus that is killing millions around the world. Will they die too? Will their babies perish in the womb, before they have even had a chance to draw breath?
The intensity of the relationships between these women and Nurse Power is beautifully drawn by Donoghue, as are those between Julia, her untrained helper Bridie, and that rarest of beings back then, a woman doctor: Dr Katherine Lynn, who took part in the republican uprising two years earlier and is on the run from the police.
These three women will change each other’s lives, but they will lose lives to the baffling pandemic, too – mothers, unborn babies – while others will be saved. It’s a story of shining humanity, tenderness, determination, bravery and loss. I can’t praise it highly enough.