Book review: “The Wonder” by Emma Donoghue

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.

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Lovely cover too

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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Book Review: “The Blood Miracles” by Lisa McInerney

I LOVED The Glorious Heresies; we read it in my book club last year after it won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and all of us thought it was fantastic. A well-deserved winner. So, we had no problem picking the follow-up to read as one of our summer three and I had very high expectations.

The Blood Miracles imgThe novel begins more or less where The Glorious Heresies left off with the central character, Ryan Cusack, embroiled ever more deeply in the Cork city underworld of drugs, money laundering and violence. McInerney has managed to keep Ryan’s character consistent – he has evolved in an entirely credible way – although, unlike in the first novel, there now seems almost no hope of the more refined, gentler side of his personality prevailing to choose a different lifestyle. He is more embedded in the criminal fraternity than ever but remains an engaging and attractive central character. If anything, his charisma grows as he matures; true, he does some pretty unpleasant things, and not always at the behest of his criminal masters, but you can see that McInerney, if this turns out to be part of a series of novels, is building him up to be the tormented gangster.

Other characters remain consistent too. There is Karine, Ryan’s long-suffering girlfriend; their teenage romance was a beautiful precious thing in the first novel, amidst the degradation of events. Their relationship continues in The Blood Miracles but with new twists and turns as they grow up and innocence is left well and truly behind them. The addition of another potential love interest, in the form accountancy student Natalie, brings some further complications to Ryan’s messy personal life. There is also Ryan’s father Tony, the broken man, an alcoholic who was widowed young with five children to bring up. Portrayed as pathetic and useless in the first novel, he plays a lesser part here, but in some ways his strengths and his importance to Ryan become more apparent. I was puzzled by the title of the novel until almost near the end when an exchange between father and son on Ryan’s birthday makes it clear – blood, family, can drive the greatest and most profound acts in all of us.

The remaining characters include the two senior gangsters – Dan Kane, for whom Ryan works as a dealer, and Jimmy Phelan, who was so prominent in The Glorious Heresies – and their various acolytes, including Maureen Phelan (Jimmy’s mother) who once again plays a pivotal role. The city of Cork also looms large in the novel, as does Ryan’s love-hate relationship with it:

“This city, like all cities, hates its natives. It would rather be in a constant state of replenishment than own up to what it has warped.”

The basic plot is a drug deal, a major shipment of MDMA from Italy to Ireland. Ryan’s mother was Italian and he speaks the language. This has made him an instrumental part of the deal with the Camorra in Naples. The drugs go astray in what appears to be a theft from Dan Kane’s girlfriend after she’d picked up the shipment and was moving it to a safe house. The rest of the book is about solving the mystery of the missing merchandise and the accusations and counter-accusations.

I found the novel a bit slow to start and I was worried that it wasn’t going to live up to the promise of The Glorious Heresies, but about a quarter of the way through the pace changes quite significantly. So, if you’re struggling initially, persevere at least to page 100! You realise that in the first part of the book there is a lot of scene-setting going on and the author is working hard to recreate the settings, themes and characters from her earlier book. If you hadn’t read The Glorious Heresies this would help set the context for you, but you will enjoy this book more if you’ve read the first. As the plot around the missing drugs thickens, it becomes completely compelling and the denouement is utterly brilliant – I could actually feel my heart beating faster!

Can’t tell you more without giving too much away, I’m afraid. Suffice to say it is a page-turner. It’s earthy and visceral with plenty of sex, drugs, booze and swearing! The writing is incredible, particularly the dialogue. It is narrated almost like one of those old-fashioned 1950s gangster movies, with smoke-filled rooms, seductive women and a lilting sax in the background! Like the title of the first Ryan Cusack novel it’s also glorious!

Highly recommended.

Have you read this book? How do you think it compares to The Glorious Heresies and do you think you can read this without reading the first?

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‘Holding’ by Graham Norton

You’ve got to admire Graham Norton; he started out as a stand-up comic, first came to prominence in the classic TV comedy show Father Ted, making a handful of appearances as one of the many random priests on Craggy Island, and has since built a very successful career as a broadcaster on both radio and television, mostly in the UK. He has previously written three autobiographical books, but Holding is his first novel. People like Graham Norton are so annoying; they are really good at their chosen vocation, then they write a book…and they’re really good at that too! Most of us are just trying to be good at the one thing!

 

I do love Graham Norton, though, and this book does not disappoint. I listened to the Audiobook, which is narrated brilliantly by Graham himself, and I am certain this added to my enjoyment. He performs each role with such distinctiveness and brings the characters to life. The plot of the story is a straightforward whodunnit, but it has twists and turns which Norton handles deftly. The story is set in the seemingly sleepy town of Duneen in County Cork, Ireland, but beneath the surface, there stir unaccountable passions which have been and continue to be suppressed by culture and tradition.

Our central character is Sergeant PJ Collins, the local police officer, who is overweight, unmarried, and carries about him the burden of knowing that his life has been little lived. The small-town torpor is completely shaken up, however, by the discovery of human remains in a field which is being developed for a new housing estate. It is widely suspected to be the body of Tommy Burke, a young man who disappeared many years earlier in mysterious circumstances. Suspicions are immediately thrown upon two local women with whom he had romantic links: Brid Riordan, to whom he was engaged, but only, we learn, because she was set to inherit a farm when his own family’s fortunes were somewhat in decline. Brid is now middle-aged, unhappily married and an alcoholic. The other main suspect is Evelyn Ross, a spinster who lives with her two unmarried sisters in one of the largest houses in the town, who was Tommy’s true love at the time, but the relationship was largely unrequited.

Thus the scene is set and the plot thereafter takes on some impressively imaginative twists and turns. Graham Norton’s great talent, however, is clearly for character and he introduces us to a wide cast of individuals, from the swaggering and confident, but equally unfulfilled, Detective Linus Dunne from Cork (brought in to investigate the homicide), who initially patronises and sidelines PJ before gradually accepting and empathising with him, to the meek and mild Mrs Meaney, PJ’s housekeeper, who initially comes across as something of a busybody but who takes on greater depth as the story progresses. Listening to Graham Norton’s narration gave me an even more powerful sense of the cast of characters, I think, than if I had read the book, and, I repeat, he does it brilliantly!

The book is ultimately about what lies beneath, quite literally, in the body that is discovered on the building site, but also in the characters, the lives that go on behind closed doors, until a catastrophe comes along and forces them out into the open. It is also very much about the upending of old traditions (not all good), in a post-Celtic tiger, post-credit crunch world and its being replaced by new ways of being – not all of which are good either.

I loved this book – it had me driving slowly and sitting outside my house in the car, just so I could listen to the end of a chapter! It’s quite an accomplishment for a debut novel. Highly recommended.

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your views.

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