by Emma Donoghue
An eleven-year-old girl stops eating, but remains miraculously alive and well. A nurse, sent to investigate whether she is a fraud, meets a journalist hungry for a story.
Set in the Irish Midlands in the 1850s, The Wonder—inspired by numerous European and North American cases of “fasting girls” between the sixteenth century and the twentieth—is a psychological thriller about a child’s murder threatening to happen in slow motion before our eyes. Pitting all the seductions of fundamentalism against sense and love, it is a searing examination of what nourishes us, body and soul.
I've been meaning to read some Emma Donoghue for a while now. She's most famous for Room, which she also adapted into a screenplay and was subsequently nominated for an Oscar for, but she's also an author of numerous historical fiction titles, and I'm sure you all know by now how much I enjoy my historical fiction. Thankfully, I enjoyed this too.
The Wonder takes place in 19th century Ireland, where English nurse Elizabeth 'Libby' Wright has been sent to watch over a young girl who is living on no food and has been doing so for longer than should be possible. Is eleven year old Anna O'Donnell really living off manna from Heaven or are she and her family tricking the public into making their home a site of pilgrimage that people will pay to visit?
The first thing I must say about this book is that I think it's been a victim of dishonest marketing. Frequently I've seen The Wonder described as a 'psychological thriller' and it isn't - it isn't even a thriller. Dark Places is a thriller, The Wonder is straight-up historical fiction and that's fine if you haven't picked it up expecting an atmospheric, fast-paced mystery. If you're a fan of quieter stories, more along the lines of Burial Rites than Gone Girl, then I think you'd enjoy this novel. The Wonder is a very slow book - though it certainly picks up at the end with a finale which, though I liked, I wasn't entirely sure suited the tone of the rest of the book - and it did become fairly repetitive after a while as Libby's days bled from one into the other, so don't pick this up if you're expecting something action-packed.
As is so often the case in historical fiction, our heroine is strong, intelligent and appears to be hiding a secret from her past that has distanced her from the rest of her family. In all honesty I got a little bored of Libby's secret towards the end of the novel, especially as I had a sneaking suspicion (ultimately proven to be correct) that she hadn't actually done anything terribly wrong, though of course I'm looking at her from the perspective of a woman in the 21st century. Even so I don't think her secret really warranted so much secrecy, at least not between Libby and the reader, but despite all that I still found Libby an engaging heroine. In fact one thing I liked about Libby a lot was that she wasn't a shouting, screaming suffragette - don't get me wrong, I love me some shouting, screaming suffragettes - but it was nice to see a heroine who was a little quieter, more serious than fiery.
It's revealed very early on in the novel that Libby worked under the tutelage of Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War and I was wary that The Lady with the Lamp would overshadow the story, but any allusions to her were used sparingly and I liked the way she was portrayed; she wasn't deified, at least not by Libby, and that made all the difference.
Our secondary heroine is Anna herself, who's a charming little girl. It can be difficult to write children, and especially difficult to write nice children without writing a saccharine book, so it's a testament to Donoghue's writing that Anna is a very likable little girl. I loved the recurring theme of food that surrounded her, from Ireland's Potato Famine to fasting in the Christian faith and the idea of surviving on 'manna from heaven'. My only problems with Anna are less with Anna herself and more with the people around her, and these were problems that persuaded me not to give The Wonder a higher rating than three stars.
Firstly, there's a romance in this book that I wasn't expecting. The romance itself I actually don't have a problem with; Libby's love interest is a journalist who's covering the story of Anna's miraculous survival despite her lack of food and it was really refreshing to read about a journalist who doesn't fall into the 'evil journalist' trope. My issue was more that I wasn't sure if the romance was necessary to the plot. It certainly didn't ruin the book for me, I actually liked the two characters together a lot, but it made the book feel like it was more about Libby than Libby and Anna; as the story wore on Anna began to feel like more of a sidekick in Libby's story than the star of her own, if that makes any sense at all.
Anna also has a secret of her own - after all Libby's there to see if she really can survive on no food or if her starvation is linked to something more sinister - and I'm still not sure if I'm satisfied with the way it was handled. I won't give anything away, but her secret is revealed fairly late in the novel and while Libby tries to do something about it, and rightfully so, it seems to be brushed under the carpet very quickly for something so serious. If you've read The Wonder hopefully you'll understand what I mean.
That being said, I did enjoy the relationship that develops between Libby and Anna; they're a very sweet duo and their friendship develops very naturally. Libby doesn't make herself easy to get along with but Anna gets under her skin, and under the skin of the reader, in a way that doesn't make her feel like a watered-down (and less annoying) version of Pollyanna. Through Libby Donoghue explores the darker side of the church, willing to exploit a starving child to attract pilgrims in a country that's already no stranger to starvation, but Ireland itself isn't portrayed as a 'bad' place, which I appreciated.
If you enjoy your historical fiction and you like slow, quiet stories I'd recommend checking this one out. Regardless of the few problems I had with the story I do think it's written very well, and I'd be interested in checking out more of Donoghue's fiction in future.