CBR Bingo square: Bodies.
I read this one closer to the start of my summer of Irish fiction, in an independent study with a student who needed just a couple more credits to graduate. I wanted something pretty contemporary to close out on, so I gave her a choice between Donoghue’s The Pull of the Stars, which I’d already read, and The Wonder, which I had not. She picked The Wonder.
Donoghue has explained that this novel was inspired by the Victorian phenomenon of “fasting girls,” in which young girls, often pre-adolescent, appeared to stop eating and yet somehow survive for a long time; these girls also often said they had mystical powers (typically religious in nature, occasionally magical). Some were exposed as frauds; some never gave up the game and survived to a normal age; a few, most notably Sarah Jacob in Wales, died. Scholars have written a lot on what these girls and their actions said about women and the (female) body during the Victorian era.
Donoghue moves this action to the Irish Midlands in 1859, where Anna O’Donnell, an eleven-year-old girl in a small village, has apparently eaten nothing since her eleventh birthday, four months prior. Several prominent leaders in the village are eager to prove that Anna is, in fact, a legitimate miracle, and so they hire a pair of nurses to monitor Anna around the clock for several weeks to make sure she isn’t a fraud. One of those nurses is a Catholic nun; the other is our protagonist, Elizabeth “Lib” Wright, an English widow who trained as a nurse under Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War. Lib is a quantitative sort of person, with no patience for what she sees as either Irish or Catholic superstition and backwardness, and yet Anna, in her gentleness and apparent sincerity, starts to win her over in the conversations that Lib begrudgingly allows herself to be drawn into. As Lib’s watch continues, Anna seems to grow increasingly weaker. At the same time, Lib becomes acquainted with a journalist who is reporting on the phenomenon for a Dublin paper, William Byrne, who as a native Irishman understands both the people and place better than Lib, but as a city man with some education, also understands the burden of poverty and religiosity that dominate the setting–not just the Famine, but also the cultural and religious changes that swept over Ireland in its wake.
“Everybody was a repository of secrets,” Lib reflects, partway through the novel, and this is true. The action of this novel is very slight, mostly involving Lib sitting and watching Anna, but the suspense comes from the gradual peeling back of secrets. Contrary to Lib’s expectations at the start, when she suspects everyone of being in on a hoax, few of these secrets are being held maliciously, but they are heavy burdens to their holders, and Lib, it turns out, is holding a few secrets of her own. Anna and her body are the deepest and most difficult secret of all, and Lib gradually is the only one who seems aware of that there’s even more going on in Anna’s psyche than in her body. (The only person who seems to have no secrets is Byrne, our man who navigates the in-betweens, and serves in many ways as Lib’s guide to the complexities of the place which she finds herself.) When all is at last revealed to Lib, she finds herself faced with a crisis of conscience and choice, which leads the book to quite a Gothic denouement. (Stephen King, in his review of the novel for the NYT, found it a bit much, and I can see why, though he otherwise praised the book warmly.) One thing Donoghue does so well here is to enmesh the mind and the body, especially young Anna’s body, showing the dynamic interplay between our beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and these bodies that enclose them.
It’s a novel that might send you to Wikipedia a couple times, though Byrne is as much a resident explainer for you the reader as he is for Lib, but the episodes of history to which you’ll be guided are indeed fascinating ones. The novel ends, fortunately, less bleakly than one might fear, so if you’re interested in a read that acknowledges darkness and suffering but doesn’t let them have the last word, this is a good one.
(Slightly spoilery note/content warning: The Wonder has been adapted as a film starring Florence Pugh, to be released later this year. A heads-up if you choose to read the book or watch the movie; there are references, though no graphic descriptions, to child sexual abuse.)