A review by John Cook.
Emma Donohue is an amazingly prolific writer (of all kinds) with a strong academic background. Her reach and range are quite amazing. Typically, she presents as bisexual…
‘When I think about how embarrassed and sheepish so many gay people felt around 1990, it’s unrecognizable. I’ve ended up having a family [Donoghue has two children with her partner Chris] as well as being a lesbian – when I was younger I really thought it would be one or the other.’
Emma Donoghue says she developed an interest in the Great Influenza in 2018 as the 100th anniversary approached. That is the kind of prescience shared by ‘The End of October’ but without the sci-fi drama and bedded in total realism that pulls in so many issues of that time that continue to be working today. She has produced something eminently readable though with substantial challenges for some. For me, the book generated a lot of introspection about time and place. My parents were born in 1906 and 1909 in rural locations and I had never given much thought about their birthing. I am a family historian and am aware of a grouping of deaths of older family members in 1919. Dealing with the detailed treatment of childbirth took me back to my Mother’s copy of ‘The Home Physician’ (1930) which was big on so much of the treatments Donoghue presents especially those poultices and my childhood memories of chloroform. It makes this reader think about the advances every twenty years of my life have brought – some lifesaving for me. The reference to the difficulty of defeating the combination of viral flu and bacterial pneumonia is stark against the imminent Covid 19 vaccination program and its speedy development.
The focus of this three day (and night) story is Nurse Julia Porter. She is young (twenties) as well trained as the time permitted, a mixture of traditional Irish culture (religion), a respect for learning and science, and aware of her thoughtful position in a country torn by political strife and now a plague. Donoghue skilfully draws in a series of characters that represent different experiences and backgrounds and crams then largely into a narrow frame of time and place – an inner-city hospital dealing with its usual business plus the often interacting effects of the Spanish Flu.
The other two main characters are Dr. Lynn, a real life Sinn Fein rebel doctor who devoted her life to mother and infant care. She represents a modern, changing, scientific view on life and medical practice and highlights the problems of dealing with a somewhat rigid medical world dominated by men, strict hierarchies, and religious encrustation. The other is Bridie Sweeny who appears at the door as a volunteer from a nearby Catholic home (she has been institutionalised all her life). She rapidly learns from Julia how to be a help both in menial tasks and some medical procedures, even anticipating them. She represents an almost innocent goodness that soon creates a bond with Julia against the background of the heaving life and death incidents that occur on their tiny stage. There is another character, Julia’s returned soldier brother Tim who has been rendered mute. He has little to do with the story detail and mainly stands as a symbol for the damage done in Irish society by all kinds of conflict.
This tiny space in which Julia works can only accommodate three women who simultaneously are birthing and dealing with the flu. Each come from different backgrounds that represent marital and social problems but most clearly the dead hand of ‘the pipe’, the system of public care dominated by the Catholic church which delivered services for which it was paid but also a range of behaviours and outcomes that it is now known were marked by insufferably harsh behaviours. The author is careful to balance this care and with good and thoughtful actions that come to a final crisis in the last pages dealing with young Barnabas.
This is a somewhat extreme book in some respects that may be off-putting. Readers are present at all aspects of three births and in great detail. I, like most men, have only the sketchiest knowledge of what happens and probably squeamish to boot. However, I am grateful for what I learned from this book about the process in general and what can go horribly wrong as well as the endurance of mothers and their carers.
There may be some who might argue that the plot and speed of development are extreme which might be a little true of Julia’s decision making but not of what happens in that tiny ‘ward’. Donoghue appears to have had lesbian experiences but is married with two children and this appears to seep into this story. As Dr. Lynn pretty clearly is unabashedly so with her determinedly masculine clothing while Julia finds herself finding emotional satisfaction, at least, in her speedy relationship with young Bridie. Most of the relationship material concerns future possibilities after the flu recedes. The only question is who will be there to take their part in the momentous events that have since shaken Irish society.
Not great but very good indeed, easy to read, compelling, and fulfilling.
BCC Library has 50 copies, audio book, eBook, mp3