Dublin in 1918, was a city of grinding poverty, rot, and cruelty. It was filled with damaged war veterans, homeless children, families unable to properly care for their many offspring, and the merciless Catholic Church.
It would all be unbearably bleak if it weren’t for the irrepressible goodness of the women in the story. They shine like a bright light in an otherwise dark period of history.
Emma Donoghue’s latest book came out in early 2020 just before the world changed. For some reason, I didn’t jump on its bandwagon right away and then when I did, I was at the bottom of the queue to get a library copy. But it was so worth the wait!
The parallels with today’s pandemic are eerily similar. It’s a reminder that the world has been through this before and that those worst off in society, are once again the hardest hit.
A terrible influenza has decimated Europe and Dublin has been hit hard with its impoverished living conditions. Masks are generally worn, except for those who’ve already been hit with “a dose of the flu” and there is not yet a vaccine. Proclamations throughout the city send a barrage of confusing messages and like today, people suspect their neighbour of passing on the disease. “Guilt was the sooty air we breathed these days.”
Very little is understood about “the grippe” and homemade remedies and old wives’ cures abounded. But of course, they aren’t the answer as the medical community knows too well.
Frustrated, one doctor says, “some flu patients are dropping like flies while others sail through, and we can’t solve the puzzle or do a blasted thing about it.”
At the heart of the story are the women who care for their patients and for each other.
Nurse Julia Powers, the narrator, is dedicated and strong, with a tireless determination to see things through. This applies to both her home with her mute brother back from the war, and in her work at a city hospital in the Maternity/Fever ward.
Thrust into this understaffed, bare-bones situation, she nurses her sick expectant patients with such tenderness and capability, I’d want her at my bedside should the need arise. Nurse Powers, ever professional, never allows the snarky Mrs. Garrett to get the better of her, never allows despair to overcome her over the inevitable deaths, and never allows the inhumanity of the Church to sway her own moral code.
Of course the hospital is reeling from shortages of staff and supplies, so it’s a godsend when young volunteer Bridie Sweeney is sent over to help. Despite her inexperience and naivety, Bridie is relentlessly cheerful with a knack for patient care. Grateful for the free food and tea (with sugar, as much as you like!), it’s the first time she’s been given an opportunity to be useful and appreciated. Through Bridie, we get a glimpse of the underbelly of the system for those who became wards of the Church.
Rounding out the Maternity/Fever ward is Dr. Lynn, on the run from police and a rebel in the cause of a free Ireland. As explained in the author’s note, Dr. Lynn is the only character based on a real person. She was a dedicated physician and feminist working for the well-being of women and children long into her 80s.
This book is a fast read. The drama of the ward is especially suspenseful as we watch this small group of women battle against the odds to bring life into the world. The characters will stay with you long after you close the last page
Many people don’t want to read anything about plagues and pandemics - perhaps that’s why I waited to read it - but it would be shame to miss out on this book. There is comfort here, knowing we live in a world so much more equipped to deal with a deadly virus. There is also much beauty and light amid the misery.
My in-laws got their first vaccine shot last week - a beacon of hope on the horizon that our own strange world may soon regain some balance. Keep washing your hands, wear your mask, and get vaccinated when it's your turn.
In the meantime, happy reading!