A new novel by Emma Donoghue is always cause for celebration, and The Wonder takes us into yet another vividly realised snapshot of history. It is 1859 and Elizabeth (‘Lib’) Wright, a veteran nurse from Florence Nightingale’s army in the Crimea, has been called to Ireland on a curious mission. She knows little about her job except the name of her patient – O’Donnell – and the fact that she is required for only two weeks. Only on her arrival in an impoverished Irish village is she given her commission: a strange task that will force Lib to weigh up faith and reason, to face the griefs of her own past, and to confront the possibility that miracles may genuinely exist.
Lib’s task, it turns out, is simply to watch rather than to nurse. Her charge is Anna O’Donnell, an eleven-year-old girl who – it is claimed – has eaten nothing for four months and subsists merely on God’s grace. Lib has been hired by a committee of influential local men to test this claim, although many already believe that Anna is well on her way to becoming a saint. And they aren’t the only ones: as Lib takes up her post, she finds Anna besieged by visitors from all over Ireland and beyond, struck with the tale of this devout child and eager to lay eyes on her for themselves. And yet, as Lib studies Anna, she finds it hard to believe that this rosy, bright and intelligent child has truly eaten nothing for so long; for Lib is a rational creature, her faith burned away by the horrors of the Crimea.
For two weeks, Lib will share duties with another nurse (Sister Michael, a nun from a nearby convent): one of them will be with Anna at all times, to see whether she truly does lack all outward nourishment. As the time passes, Lib begins to delve deeper into the dynamics of the strange, fervent O’Donnell family: to unearth their past, their secrets and, more importantly, to wonder which of them has been supplying Anna with food. And how, since she can’t imagine how it can have been done and yet, surely, it must have. But the passing days also bring concerns for Lib, who is torn between her role as a watcher and her vocation as a nurse. For now, certainly, Anna seems hale and hearty. But if she were to show signs of weakness or illness, at what point must Lib begin to listen to her conscience rather than to the devout convictions of those around her? And, having listened, how can she convey her worries to the members of the committee, who are convinced they have a living saint in their midst?
This is a deft, troubling book, posing questions about cultural sensitivities and a nurse’s duty to her employers as opposed to her patient. I have no real experience of living in a devout Catholic community of this kind and so I find it hard to tell how plausible the situation is, in the readiness of people to believe in Anna’s miraculous qualities. There are times when it seems inconceivable that the situation could continue as is, but perhaps it really is true – as Lib herself will discover – that being too close to a case can blind us to its reality. Anna herself is a sweet child, but pious in the way of those moral Victorian tales published by the Religious Tract Society (I think in particular of Little Dot, where an elderly gravedigger befriends the cherubic child of the title who then, predictably, falls mortally ill in a very improving fashion – but I digress). Lib’s scepticism adds some bite to the story, offering what could be seen as a more modern point of view, but one which fits seamlessly within that historical context thanks to her Crimea experiences.
I’ve seen this novel likened to Room, perhaps because it’s written by Donoghue and centres on a woman and a child confined in a small space. But there are many differences. While Room is memorable for its remarkable handling of the child’s narrative voice, The Wonder is told in a more conventional third-person style. Even so, Donoghue does always manage to give her books a rhythm that is distinctly individual and informed by their setting: the gutter cant of Slammerkin, for example, or the down-at-heel 19th-century slang of Frog Music. Similarly, The Wonder has its own flavour in a rather detached, brisk narrative style that fits perfectly with the meticulous observations of a nurse.
Certainly worth seeking out, this is a book about miracles – perhaps the simple, everyday kind, such as love and comfort, as much as the grander religious kind. Unlike many of Donoghue’s earlier books, this isn’t based on one specific case from history, but was inspired by the surprisingly widespread phenomenon of ‘fasting girls’ in the 19th century. It’s hard not to think that these saintly girls, who were so admired by the pious commentators of the Victorian age, would now probably be diagnosed with severe eating disorders. How times change…
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review