I received a copy of The Wonder in exchange for an honest review by the publisher.
I sit here wondering what the last Donoghue I read was. I read Room shortly after it was published in 2010. Goodreads tells me that I never made it Frog Music, so I think it would have been Astray, a collection of short stories based on historical events published in 2012. At the time, I would have been reading for a Canadian award committee, and I believe it did make it to the shortlist that year. I wonder these things, because for some reason, I forgot that Emma Donoghue can write one hell of a story.
The Wonder is the story of Lib Wright, an English nurse trained by Florence Nightingale who is brought to Ireland to watch over 11-year-old Anna O’Donnell. Since her last birthday 4 months previous, Anna and her family swear she hasn’t eaten any food, and instead is subsisting on “manna from heaven”. A local committee wants to test the veracity of her claims by having a respected nurse either confirm or deny a miracle.
Once I had finished reading the story, I noticed that not a whole lot had actually happened. There was a resolution to the plot, and there were some anxious moments throughout, but what Donoghue does so well is get into her characters and develops her narrative through them. Anna is a fully-formed devout child who, for all her conviction, sees the world as any child would. Lib struggles at times to reconcile her training with what she’s observing and feeling first-hand. The story is really about the relationship between these two characters and how the influence and change the other.
What I enjoyed more than this relationship was the setting and the feeling of Ireland a hundred-plus years ago. Donoghue captures all of the superstition, religious fervor, and political history of a people in her small town personalities. The potato famine, the relationship to England, and the continuing power of the Church are all there, but it never felt heavy-handed to me.
The story is based on the phenomenon of “fasting girls”, a largely Victorian phase, but with roots hundreds of years previously. Young girls would claim to go months or years without eating anything, and they quickly became local celebrities. I didn’t know much about the topic prior to reading this novel, but have since poked around and read about some of the most famous cases from the period. This BBC article about Sarah Jacobs was great, though hold off if you want to read the novel spoiler-free.
Overall I liked this book. The writing was phenomenal, and Donoghue really manages to capture a time and place through her characters in a way that doesn’t bog down the pacing or plot of the story. I’m glad that it wasn’t any longer, as there were already a few parts that dragged a little bit for me, but that’s a minor grievance. This would make a great book club selection, or a cozy weekend read as we move through fall and into winter.