One of my earliest posts on this blog was a comparison of a handful of books with their film adaptations; it was 2016, a bumper year for great books in the Oscars with The Danish Girl, The Revenant, Room and Carol all nominated. Emma Donoghue’s Room was I think my favourite of that batch (both the film and the book) and was one of my best reads of that year. Shortly after, I picked up The Wonder and it’s been sitting in my TBR pile ever since! I resolved to read it while I was away over Easter and, my goodness, it did not disappoint.
Set in rural Ireland in 1859, in the shadows of the Irish Famine and the Crimean War, the main protagonists have had disturbing brushes with death and suffering which impact the way they behave and how they interact with one another. Elizabeth ‘Lib’ Wright is a nurse who trained with Florence Nightingale in the Crimea. She is sent to Ireland on a commission to observe an eleven year-old girl, Anna O’Donnell, who, it is alleged, has not eaten for four months. Her survival without food is being hailed as a miracle and the village council has recruited a team of two (Lib, the English nurse, and an Irish nun) to watch her in shifts to ensure the child is genuinely not receiving sustenance. Many visitors have already come from both Ireland and abroad to view the child, and to perhaps receive some divine benefit from being in her midst.
Lib, with her scientific outlook, naturally suspects foul play. She has no religious faith and believes it impossible for the human body to survive without food or water; she fully expects quickly to get to the bottom of the suspected ruse. She approaches Anna with scepticism initially, believing she and her family are nothing more than manipulative, deceiving, attention-seeking hoaxers seeking to profit from their little miracle. Lib is also haughty, however; whilst she is aware of some of the wrongs that have been wrought upon the Irish people by her own country, she brings with her certain prejudices about social and cultural backwardness. She meets a Dublin journalist, staying at the same inn, and there to report on Anna’s case for his newspaper, and her conversations with him begin to educate her about Irish history about the status and role of Catholicism and about the nature of the people.
As Lib gets to know Anna better in the long hours she spends watching her, she also begins to grow fond of the child, something she does not expect and which interferes with her sense of herself as a rational being. She makes detailed notes about her observations of the child, and when it becomes truly apparent to her that little or no nourishment is reaching Anna, she becomes concerned about the deterioration in her health. The unwillingness of the family to confess to the hoax, as she sees it, disturbs her, and the vested interests of the local community, both the medical and religious elements, which seem to prevent them stepping in to save the child’s life, challenges her medical ethics. Most remarkably for Lib, however, is the commitment Anna has to her starvation; she truly has no desire to eat, and her religious fervour seems genuine and uncorrupted. Lib suspects some deep trauma (she is familiar with this notion following her experience in the Crimea) possibly connected to the death of her older brother a few months earlier, but struggles to get to the bottom of it.
The job Lib has been paid to undertake begins to take a grave emotional toll on her and all her certainties, her assumptions and the truths she has held dear begin to unravel at the same time as Anna’s health status is becoming increasingly grave.
This is a remarkable and complex novel which I found both profoundly moving and deeply interesting. The author provides an insight into a community, a belief system and a set of codes that most of us will struggle to comprehend. And yet, the way she recounts the story, you can see how Anna’s actions might make perfect sense to her, to her family and to her community. This is the most alarming part – how easily it could be seen as real and reasonable – and gives an insight into how sometimes bizarre doctrines can take hold in groups so that they can seem true, in spite of scientific evidence.
The plot of this book is also gripping and it has some remarkable twists, not to be revealed here, which will have you on the edge of your seat.
Highly recommended, a real page-turner which will draw you into a world you did not know about.
Have you read any other Emma Donoghue books – which would you recommend I read next?
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