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Publishers and authors are not exempt from the unknowns of 2020. Hotly anticipated new titles were pulled as global distribution chains shut down. What could at first glance appear pay dirt for publishers – so many potential readers stuck at home – quickly came up against the force of binge streaming services and concentration fatigue from video calls.

Yet something aligned for The Pull of the Stars, the latest novel from Emma Donoghue steeped in superb characterisation and writing that can knock the breath from your lungs. Set in Dublin in 1918, the world at war, already on edge, is lurched by a mysterious strain of influenza into a full-throttled pandemic.  

Nurse Julia travels in the dawn darkness to work past signs that warn “the public is urged to stay out of public places such as cafes, theatres, cinemas and public houses. See only those persons one needs to see. Refrain from shaking hands”. Characters ponder throughout: “How would we ever get back to normal after the pandemic?” Sound familiar? The story weaves the intersecting stories of many women together but at its core is Julia: 30 years old, unmarried, exhausted at work and by night tending to a brother traumatised by war and feeling abandoned by his homeland. 

Donoghue is expert at creating a vivid world that exists within four cramped walls (many will be familiar with Room; her best-selling novel of kidnap and abuse that was transformed into an Oscar-winning film) and she achieves it with aplomb in her latest release. The Pull of the Stars is a slow-burn on plot and unfolds mostly inside the maternity-fever ward where infected mothers-to-be deliver their babies into the terrifying unknown. There is tragedy but Donoghue’s story is abundantly one of hope – and if your 2020 pandemic inconvenience is limited to Zoom fatigue, these gruesome scenes of struggle will leave you especially thankful.