The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

Read in December 2016

3 of 5 stars

In The Wonder Emma Donoghue tells the story of Anna O’Donnell, an eleven-year-old girl living in rural poverty in 1850s Ireland who suddenly stops eating but appears nonetheless to flourish. By the time a committee of local elders decides to act, the girl has been fasting for four months and is attracting the attention of people who attribute her survival to divine intervention. Some want her declared a miracle. Others are skeptical and suspect she’s faking. But before making any pronouncements, the committee wants to get to the bottom of the O’Donnell family’s claims. Enter Lib Wright, an English nurse of impeccable pedigree (having worked under Florence Nightingale in the Crimea), who is brought in by the committee to “watch” the child to ensure she’s not somehow being provided with nourishment on the sly. Lib, who has long since placed her faith in science rather than god, embarks upon her two-week assignment convinced that Anna is a fraud and that the O’Donnell family is somehow profiting from the girl’s supposed achievement. But as the days pass and she sees no evidence that Anna is being fed, and the child impresses her with her steady devotion, her inquiring intelligence, and her mystical air of innocence, Lib finds herself at a loss to explain what’s going on and also growing attached to Anna in ways that she knows are not healthy. To reveal more of the plot would be unfair. Suffice it to say that the discoveries Lib makes are as much about herself as they are about Anna. Emma Donoghue writes convincingly from the perspective of an English nurse living in the 1850s. The prose is filled with period detail, and the lush Irish countryside is skilfully evoked. In many respects Lib is a fish out of water, an Englishwoman dropped into rural Ireland in the years immediately following the Great Famine, whose eyes are opened again and again to the suffering the Irish endured and the indomitable spirit of a downtrodden but proud people. Donoghue’s novel is fiction, but the idea for it comes from tales of numerous “fasting girls” whose exploits were widely reported in Europe, the Americas and elsewhere from the 1600s to the 1800s. From these seeds Emma Donoghue has fashioned an absorbing story filled with affecting drama and memorable characters. A feast for the heart and the mind.