In the Afterword of this novel Emma Donoghue explains that she turned in her final edits for this novel just before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. While she would have had no way of knowing how absolutely timely this story would be, she has produced something that mirrors our current reality to the letter and makes it very, very personal.
The story takes place in Ireland in the middle of WWI and the 19-teens flu pandemic, just after the Easter Rising of 1916. Julia Power is turning 30 and unmarried. Her brother Tim has returned from the war and the trauma has turned him mute along with other PTSD symptoms (loud noises, crowds). She is a nurse at the local hospital that is run by the nuns of the local convent, and she watches over the Fever/Maternity ward where pregnant women exhibiting symptoms of the flu have to go instead of regular maternity. The societal pressures of religion, gender, and class are all brought up as Julia moves through her days.
Motherhood and how we treat pregnant women is also a major theme. Before babies are even born people are judging whether or not a women will make a good mother, especially unwed mothers. A baby is stillborn, does that mean the mother wasn’t good enough? Women arrive that are poor and extremely underfed – what do we owe women as a baseline for acceptable living (see also: all people). How young is too young to have a baby? We are only in the ward for three days but all of these questions and more are posed while Julia and her runner Bridie care for the women.
Donoghue is so good at writing intensity. You will be able to feel the exhaustion of Julia’s job as you read, and you’ll be as surprised as she is when her shift is over. You’ll feel enraged as Julia reads all the ridiculous government propaganda and myths about the flu that she is battling posted around the city. The number of times I stopped to read a passage to the husband and say “this exact thing is happening right now!” only to have him (a world history teacher) say “yes, history repeats itself.” This was yet another book I’ve read this year that is solidifying my belief that even if we remember history our societal gears are so stuck that we’re doomed to repeat it anyway. The recent (and ongoing!) pandemic is proof of that.
If the COVID-19 pandemic took someone from you, if it hit you hard, you may not want to read this one until you’ve grieved. I do think that this would be an excellent book to incorporate into a high school classroom, either in a world history class or an english class, to help students see that this isn’t the first time we’ve tackled a pandemic, and it won’t be the last. There was even a discussion guide at the end of the book to help with a book club or class discussion.
Donoghue has written a fantastic book that is important in our current time. If you feel like you can, you should read it. It’s important to understanding our past and properly advocating for our future. Go get it.
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