There are two gripping mysteries at the centre of Emma Donoghue’s new novel “The Wonder”. An English nurse who trained under Florence Nightingale named Elizabeth “Lib” Wright is summoned on a special job to rural Ireland in the mid 1800s. Only during the journey does she discover that she’s charged to keep watch over a young Catholic girl Anna O’Donnell who claims to have subsisted for many months without any food. The girl, her family and the village believe she’s being kept alive purely through a divine power. This has made her a wonder that many devoted people make pilgrimages to see. Is this a religious miracle or a fraud? Lib’s job is not to make the girl eat but just to observe her to independently testify that she truly doesn’t consume anything. However, this nurse who served in the Crimean War has a troubled hidden past of her own: “Everybody was a repository of secrets.” When her atheist views clash severely with this deeply-religious village, great conflict ensues. This highly intriguing atmospheric story intelligently shows a clash between new and old world sensibilities, the complicated nature of religious belief and the malleable nature of identity.
Hanging over this novel is the Great Famine in Ireland which had ended only recently in the early 1850s. The girl’s refusal of any food and gradual wasting away is a grim reminder of the near quarter of the country’s population who unwillingly perished. Lib is well aware of this enormous loss so it’s even more baffling to her that a girl would deny herself food and that her family/community/priest would support her decision. Lib’s opinion of the Irish falls as she spends time in the rural village and observes their customs. Not only are there intricate old-fashioned religious practices which sometimes elevates after-life glory over mortal wellbeing, but she shows contempt for their customs/manner of living, homes made of mud and unpalatable griddle cakes. It leads her to generalize “What a rabble, the Irish. Shiftless, thriftless, hopeless, hapless, always brooding over past wrongs. Their tracks going nowhere, their trees hung with putrid rags.” Her increasing bias throws into question who the reader should morally side with. However, an intelligent reporter from Dublin named William Byrne who is also a believer adds a bridge between this clash in national identity.
Donoghue includes a rich amount of period detail that makes this story richly alive. Not only are there compelling descriptions of the customs of village life in Ireland from this time, but also details about the nursing profession and medical practices. Many local physicians’ methodology was steeped as much in religious or misguided evolutionary beliefs as in hard therapeutic facts. Lib represents a newfound approach to medical care with a more rounded view of ways to support the afflicted: “what nobody understood: saving lives often came down to getting a latrine pipe unplugged.” This leads to a fascinating portrait of changing sensibilities within this time period. Donoghue also strikingly shows the subversive way people with misogynistic views could be manipulated through the way they underestimate women.
As in her well-known novel “Room”, the author shows a respect for the canniness and resilience of children. Donoghue remarks at one point “Like small gods, children formed their miniature worlds out of clay, or even just words. To them, the truth was never simple.” Rather than a pious simpleton, young Anna is gradually revealed to be a fascinating character with complex motives. The novel gains a swift momentum as the truth about both Anna and her vigilant watching nurse Lib are revealed. Donoghue explains in her author’s note how this novel was inspired by multiple cases over the centuries of fasting girls who reportedly survived for long periods of time without food. She has a great talent for condensing multiple instances of an irregular social phenomenon into a story that says something meaningful about our culture and the nature of being. “The Wonder” is a finely-crafted and emotionally-charged story.