Lib Wright, a young English nurse, arrives in an impoverished Irish village on a strange mission. Eleven- year old Anna O’Donnell is said to have eaten nothing for months, but appears to be thriving miraculously. With press and tourists flocking to see the child, the community looks for an outsider to bring the facts to light. Lib, an educated sceptic trained by the legendary Florence Nightingale. Her job is simple: to watch the girl and uncover the truth. Repelled by what she sees as ignorance and superstition, Lib expects to expose the fast as a hoax right away. But as she gets to know the girl, over the long days they spend together, Lib becomes more and more unsure. Is Anna fraud, or truly a ‘living wonder’? Or is something more sinister unfolding right before Lib’s eyes, a tragedy in which she herself is playing a part?
Emma Donoghue is an Irish writer, now based in Toronto. She’s published over 13 books, the majority historical fiction much like “The Wonder”, but she’s best known for her 2010 novel “Room”, a tale of captivity and freedom, the film adaptation of which won four Academy Awards. Now, I have to admit that I wasn’t the biggest fan of “Room” – it’s clever and moving, but I struggled somewhat with the fact that it was mainly told through the child’s perspective – a literary device that I found worked hugely well in getting across a harrowing situation without making the reader too uncomfortable, but for some reason I never enjoy child narrators all that much. However, Donoghue’s historical fiction is always thrilling – strong, compelling characters thrown into plots often drawn from real historical situations. So I was exceptionally pleased to be asked to review “The Wonder”for the Social Book Co, and it’s an example of Donoghue’s capability for taking historical situations and crafting fictional stories around them – and it’s a cracking read as a result.
“The Wonder” follows the genuine Victorian phenomenon of “Fasting Girls” -pre-adolescent girls who claimed to be able to survive indefinitely long periods of time without any sustenance, often linked with a deep religious belief and supposed miraculous powers. Some never truly had the truth behind their fasting explored – many died. Emma Donoghue explores this phenomenon with a skillful, careful touch. Whilst main character Lib is a sceptic, Donoghue is careful to never poke fun at the heavy religious beliefs of those in the small town of Athlone. Instead, they explore and investigate the situation along with Lib, learning to love Anna, the strange little girl at the center of events. It’s hard to go too much into the plot without spoiling things, but the reader is kept on their toes throughout, revelations and mysteries gradually revealing themselves throughout. The climax is compelling – the epilogue a slight disappointment for me, but only because parts of it felt rather rushed.