Set in the Irish Midlands in the 1850s, Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder is a historical novel following Lib Wright, an English nurse and trainee of the famous Florence Nightingale (the pioneer of modern nursing). She is brought to rural Ireland at the request of a committee of locals to act as sentinel to an 11-year-old girl named Anna O’Donnell. She and her family claim that through God’s will she can live without eating, and has supposedly done so for three months already. Lib’s job, working in shifts with a nun, is to continuously watch the girl for two weeks to see if she is indeed a miraculous child or merely conning her community and the people at large who flock to see her.
I liked how much this book had me guessing when I first started reading it. I went in knowing very little about it, so I wasn’t sure what approach it was going to take with the “miracle” of this fasting child. Having trained under Nightingale, Lib approaches the issue very sensibly from the get-go too. She immediately assumes the whole thing is a con of some sort, and while it would surely reduce her pay, she foresees putting an end to it rather quickly. While it was clear that the story was quite grounded in reality, I suspected that since Lib was immediately so skeptical a shift toward elements of the unknown might be on the way. There was a shift, but it was not what I was expecting.
We are limited to Lib’s perspective, which was excellent in how it was both enlightened and flawed. The rural Irish community she travels to is steeped in local superstitions and Catholic fundamentalism, so while she is not a doctor, her nursing expertise has her looking at things more rationally than the locals. This was balanced by a general prejudice she has against the Irish as an English person, which came across less like bigotry and more as an ignorant attitude accurate to the period. She’s a fish out of water there and only really has prevailing attitudes informing her. This helped keep her from being too elevated above the rest of the characters in the story. While I do feel a good deal of her thoughts and actions are in the right, she still feels like an everyday person with her own shortcomings.
The story is a slow burn, alternating between Lib’s time spent watching Anna and her off time spent about the village. The former is given more time, wherein Lib gets to know Anna. She is fiercely religious and very clever, making the truth of the matter hard to discern initially. So much attention is given on Lib’s part to finding out the con that the shift in concern is gradual and eventually gut-wrenching. As the days progress it becomes increasingly apparent that Anna is succumbing to the effects of starvation, yet she calmly refuses to eat food out of adamant devotion to her cause. It is up to Lib to find out just what has happened to this girl and how she has warped dogma to convince herself that starvation is her only path to salvation. Whether and how she is sneaking food no longer matters. She simply isn’t anymore and it’s killing her.
The other meaningful relationships Lib forms are with Sister Michael, the nun who shares the watch with her, and William Byrne, a journalist who is trying to get the full story. I really liked the former because although they do not interact with each other a great deal, the way their relationship progresses demonstrates how Lib underestimates the quietly pious sister and is too quick to presume about more religious people’s motives. Her growing rapport with William I really liked because it was friendly, even flirty at times, but with friction between them as well. Lib wants to keep people away from Anna to prevent interference, but he’s determined to get a story, which kept me guessing about where things were headed with him.
What gripped me most about this book was how well it captured a sense of powerlessness in the face of a problem that should be easily solved. Anna simply refuses to eat as she wastes away, her parents for different reasons are useless in convincing her otherwise, and the committee is more interested in proving or disproving the purported miracle rather than the safety of the child herself. Members of this final group, additionally, hold ludicrous beliefs while belittling Lib’s good sense simply because she is a woman. My anxiety grew with further reading as the situation became more dire and I simply needed to know how or if this situation would be resolved.
The Wonder is a beautifully written, though anxiety-inducing, novel that can be difficult to put down once it has its grip on you. Though this story is fiction, it’s also a fascinating glimpse into a real phenomenon that has been reported from the 16th to the 20th century, demonstrating the kind of ingrained religious teachings that might possibly lead to such behaviour and the ways family and community can do harm by enabling it. I highly recommend it.
My Rating: 4 out of 5
Featured image source here.