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 Birth of Venus” by Sarah Dunant

I first knew Sarah Dunant as a broadcaster on late-night arts shows in the late 1990s. It’s funny how you remember some people – she always had very distinctive glasses. I was conscious that she seemed to disappear off the scene and for a while there I got her mixed up with Sarah Waters…until I saw Sarah W speak at the Manchester Literature Festival a few years ago and realised they were not the same! But Sarah D had in fact reinvented herself as an author, as I was to discover a year or so ago when I saw her speak at a writer’s conference. (I should add that 2000-2012 were lean reading years for me – I was knee-deep in children and totally out of the literary loop).

I’ve read a few historical novels, notably Deborah Moggach and Tracy Chevalier, and loved them, though it’s not a genre I often choose. I decided on this as a theme for my Facebook Reading Challenge 2018, and when I saw The Birth of Venus in my local Oxfam bookshop it seemed an obvious choice. It’s wonderful, I loved it, and it seems to have gone down pretty well with the other participants on the Reading Challenge.

The Birth of Venus imgThe novel is set in Renaissance Florence; the sense of time and place is profound. You can almost smell the streets wafting from the pages! Dunant is a meticulous researcher and the novel feels very authentic. The central character is Alessandra, the fifteen year-old daughter of a wealthy cloth merchant. Much to the frustration of her family Alessandra is a precociously intelligent young woman, a talented artist, a strong personality and has a deep desire to be out in the world. These are all traits which are highly inconvenient for the family and not compatible with the kind of life she will be expected to lead.

As a mark of their wealth, Alessandro’s parents commission a Flemish artist to paint the chapel in their home, incorporating the family’s portraits. Though she has very limited opportunity to communicate with him, his presence produces a stirring effect in Alessandra. She is attracted both by his artistic ability and his mysterious nocturnal wanderings into the city.

Alessandra is destined to be married off as soon as she starts menstruating and the husband selected for her is an older man, a long-standing family acquaintance. At first it seems the marriage will set Alessandra on the same path that her mother and sister before her have followed – moving from one zone of subjugation to another and endless child-bearing. In fact, Alessandra’s husband, Cristoforo, is the lover of her brother Tomaso and the marriage is merely one of convenience to provide him with the cover of a wife and child. At first, Alessandra is distraught and feels betrayed, but it soon becomes apparent that this frees her more than she could ever have imagined, to pursue some of her own dreams, to be more sexually liberated, and to be mistress of her own time and activity. In the background to the domestic tumult is the political upheaval in the city; first, the invasion of the French, then the rule of Savonarola, a fierce reactionary monk who preaches a severe brand of Christianity. The old certainties of corruption, sleaze and vice in the Church and politics are being brutally flushed out in favour of a strict religious fervour, and a new atmosphere of fear, surveillance, severe torture and punishment for misdemeanours has replaced it.

I will say no more as it’s a cracking story and events unfold dramatically. The plot is so well thought-through and maintains momentum right to the end. The characters are well-rounded and believable, not just Alessandra, but her mother and husband, her brother and sister, the painter and her loyal maid, African slave Erila.

The book is ambitious in scope, in its portrayal of the period and the way it weaves the political upheavals and realities of the era into what is essentially one young woman’s story of coming of age, of emotional and sexual maturing and of finding fulfilment in the most constrained of circumstances.

Highly recommended, great for any holidays you might have coming up and I’ll certainly be looking out for more Sarah Dunant for future reads.

Do you enjoy historical fiction? What are your recommendations?

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