- 15 Sep 20
Brilliant If Harrowing Tale of Dubliners During The Last Global Pandemic
The longer the current 'emergency' drags on, the more timely Donoghue’s novel, set in the post-rising Dublin of 1918, beset, as is the rest of the world, by the Spanish flu pandemic, becomes. What’ll really spin your head is Donoghue’s assertion that she began the novel in 2018, prompted by the centenary of the great flu, and had the final draft in with the publishers while COVID-19 was still a distance from the front pages. That being said, the publishers knew a good thing when it dropped in their lap, for this is the only release I know of that was actually brought forward in 2020.
The rebellion has left the city like a “great mouth holed with missing teeth” although the town’s modern inhabitants, and readers in general, will most certainly recognise something in wall-mounted warnings that advise citizens to “lie down for a fortnight” or “if in doubt, don’t stir out” and it’s difficult to suppress a wry grin when faced with the declaration that “the government has the situation well in hand.” The paranoia that ensues when someone expectorates on public transport will be familiar to all of us too.
Nurse Julia Power works in an understaffed maternity ward that must deal as best it can with infected, expectant mothers. Nothing is held back in detailing the mechanics of how we come into this world, and, as a pathetic and squeamish weakling of a man, I have to admit that I had to put the book down and walk off a few times. It is the strength of the central character – front-line workers were heroes then, as they are now - and Donoghue's marvellous writing which carry the novel, however, and I'm glad I overcame my initial spinelessness. No two ways about it, I found those scenes harrowing, but I expect I was supposed to, and they masterfully convey the hardship of the era.
Power deals with coarse orderlies, her war-damaged brother, a truly despicable ward sister, inhumane practises in ‘religious’ homes for ‘fallen’ women, and a rebel doctor on the run from the authorities in Countess Markievicz’s fur coat. When circumstances leave her in charge of the ward, she forms a relationship with Bridie Sweeney, a malnourished unfortunate sent by the local convent to work as her assistant. Given all that’s gone before, the ending might seem unavoidable, but it doesn’t detract from this moving and bravura turn from Donoghue.