One of the closest historical parallels to our current COVID pandemic is the ‘Spanish’ flu epidemic of 1918-20. The publication date of this book, commenced prior to COVID, was brought forward, no doubt to respond to this renewed interest in how a society deals with a world-wide rapidly-spreading illness, especially in Western industrialized settings. The book is set in Dublin during November 1918, just prior to the announcement of the armistice, when the flu was raging. It is set in a small quarantine ward for expectant mothers in a large hospital that is being over-run with influenza cases, at a time when many women would still have given birth at home had they not been suffering from influenza at the time.
I must confess that I guiltily enjoy the odd episode of “Call the Midwife”, and the prospect of a book about a midwife working during the influenza pandemic appealed to me. I studied the ‘Spanish’ flu in some detail a couple of years back, albeit at a very local level here in my own suburb, and I was interested in a fictional account. However, this book combines many themes – possibility too many themes – including Irish involvement in the British war, Sinn Fein, the Catholic Church mothers and babies homes, lesbian love, as well as childbirth practices and the influenza pandemic. Clearly Donoghue has done her homework on all these topics, and the research lays heavily over the story. It is overly didactic in places, and as a reader you tend to feel “told” much of the time.
The book is set over only three days in the small ward for expectant mothers in a hospital completely stretched by the influenza pandemic. Sister Julia Powell, who is just about to turn thirty, lives with her brother who has returned from the warfront, struck mute with shell shock. She is the day nurse in this small ward, turning her patients over to the care each night of Sister Luke, a harsh and rigid nun from the nearby convent. With their resources stretched by influenza cases, she welcomes a new volunteer to the ward, a young girl called Bridie Sweeney who comes from the same convent as Sister Luke. In these three days, both birth and death hover around this small ward, as Julia and her untrained assistant deal with a string of obstetric emergencies, with the fleeting attendance of Dr Katherine Lynn, a real-life doctor, who had been arrested for her Sinn Fein activities.
Even though I was frustrated by the ongoing presence of the author’s research that encrusted the story, I also found that I was completely engrossed in the book. Birth-stories have their own narrative shape – perhaps it’s the Call the Midwife effect – and the small anteroom seemed like a self-contained if somewhat claustrophobic little world, set against larger historical forces. The ending seemed a little melodramatic, and given the depth of information conveyed about influenza, the frightening rapidity of onset was underplayed, given that it is a major plot development. Nonetheless, it kept me reading late into the night.
My rating: Difficult to say – I was engrossed with it, but frustrated by the clumsiness in inserting the research into the narrative. Let’s go with 8/10?
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.