The Wonder by Emma Donoghue
Published by: Picador
Fiction, 350 pages
Rating: 4/5 stars
Lib Wright, a young English nurse brought to a small Irish village to observe what appears to be a miracle-a girl said to have survived without food for months-soon finds herself fighting to save the child’s life.
Tourists flock to the cabin of eleven-year-old Anna O’Donnell, who believes herself to be living off manna from heaven, and a journalist is sent to cover the sensation. Lib Wright, a veteran of Florence Nightingale’s Crimean campaign, is hired to keep watch over the girl. An educated skeptic, Lib expects to expose the fast as a hoax right away. But as she gets to know the girl, she becomes more and more unsure. Is Anna a fraud or a ‘living wonder’? Or is something more sinister unfolding right before Lib’s eyes? The Wonder works beautifully on many levels–a tale of two strangers who transform each other’s lives, a powerful psychological thriller, and a story of love pitted against evil.
About the author:
Emma Donoghue is an Irish-Canadian playwright, literary historian, novelist, and screenwriter. Her 2010 novel Room was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize and is an international best-seller. Room was adapted into a film of the same name, for which Donoghue wrote the screenplay that was subsequently nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Donoghue writes across genres and for screen, stage and radio.
Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder is the kind of book that takes you places you did not intend to reach. The premise looks simple enough: Lib Wright, a young English nurse who has been called to oversee claims that 11 yr Anna O’ Donnell has not eaten for four months. Set some years after the infamous Potato famine in Ireland, this book captures the life of a nondescript village in the grip of concerns over potato crops, the smell of wet weather and the beginning of a ‘wonder’ in the form of Anna who is attracting villagers and people from continents and countries. Where Wright sees a hoax, many see opportunities and a miracle in the making. Wright who has worked along with Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War earlier is skeptical of the claims being made by Anna’s family and thinks the girl is involved in an elaborate hoax along with her family. Working in shifts with a nun, Wright starts with distrust and is cloistered by the religious fervor that surrounds her. Much of the setting of the book starts in the small room where Anna lies but slowly, moves outdoors and in doing so takes readers into the subtle layers of the push and pull between the fissures and antagonism that exists between the Irish and the British even as they are bound by the Roman catholic faith.
The Wonder can perhaps come across as ‘slow’ with its lyrical pace and narrative style kept mostly to Wright’s thoughts and opinions but I would call upon readers to be patient and trust in this story of a patient and nurse grappling over faith and trust. There are a few characters that remain on the periphery but add to the slow drama that unfolds: I will recommend this for those who love to read narratives that grow on you even as they make you think: about parents who subject their children to live with guilt and fear, about care givers who must tread between professional service and connection with their wards.
This is my first book by Emma Donoghue but having loved the clever fictional world she took me to (her afterword mentions the book is based on actual events), I will definitely look out for her other works.