I remember reading Room by Emma Donoghue and not being able to put it down. I was impressed that Donoghue was able to write such a sensitive story, with such a realistic viewpoint of a little boy in extraordinary conditions. Even more, I was glad that she managed it without it feeling too exploitative. So when I saw that Donoghue had just written The Wonder (2016), I knew I wanted to read it.
At first glance, The Wonder looks like it could not be more different than Room. It takes place in 19th Century Ireland. A young English nurse, Lib Wright, is dispatched to a small town in order to confirm that a girl, eleven-year-old Anna O’Donnell, has lived for months with water as her only sustenance. Her family, local priest, and many townspeople call it a miracle. However, Lib has been taught by the no-nonsense Florence Nightingale. She is immediately skeptical and intent on uncovering the fraud of this family. Lib shares her duties with a devout Catholic nun, and the two take turns staying in Anna’s room, watching over her to see whether she eats anything at all.
Despite herself, Lib gets to know and like Anna as they spend more time together. Lib is positive that Anna is not getting any food while under her watch but does not trust that the Catholic nun is doing as good a job. The story also incites media interest, and a reporter, William Byrne, is sent out to investigate.
Some of the reviews I’ve seen have complained that The Wonder started out a little slow. I did not feel that way. I was initially interested in what was going on with the little girl. This is fiction, after all, so even if I agreed with Lib on principle, it was possible that anything could be happening. In addition, I thought that Donoghue did a very good job with the tone of this novel. Lib does not have an understanding of nor an appreciation for Ireland. Between the darkness, the wetness, the superstitious townspeople, and the controlling doctor, the setting feels stifled and claustrophobic. In addition, Lib spends almost all of her time stuck in a bedroom with Anna. She loses sleep, her exhaustion adding to the tension. At one point, Lib is trying to save Anna’s life, and she’s surrounded by people who just will not see sense. It’s enough to make you go crazy.
After the end of the novel, Donoghue mentions that there have been a number of these girls in Ireland. She discusses the convergence of religion, famine, and other influences that might have contributed. Some of these girls died, some were forced to eat, and some managed to get better on their own. It added another layer to a novel that I found both disturbing and memorable.
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.