Tuesday, May 25, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

The first of Emma Donoghue’s books that I read was Slammerkin, many years ago. Although un-put-downable, I didn’t like it: it was too brutal, the protagonist too awful. I didn’t return to the author until Room, which everyone insisted was a must-read. And it was. Donoghue is an extraordinary writer. I read her most recent historical, The Pull of the Stars, and decided I really need to work through her backlist. So, I just finished The Wonder.

Set in Ireland in the mid-1800s, it is after the famine years of failed potato harvests, but the land is still drenched with poverty and is just staving off hunger. People need to eat to live, a tragic fact when there isn’t enough food. But what if they didn’t?

So when one little girl stops eating on her eleventh birthday, and goes without food for four months yet remains healthy and happy, the small community celebrates the miracle. The girl’s elderly doctor sends a off a report, convinced that he is involved in a great medical discovery. The child’s parents and priest are convinced they are nurturing a future saint. All that is needed is proof. A committee of townsmen sends for two nurses to watch over the child, Anna, for two weeks, to confirm that she is eating nothing. One nurse is a Catholic nun. The other, Elizabeth “Lib” Wright, is an Englishwoman, a nurse trained in the Crimean War by Florence Nightingale.

Lib arrives in the Irish backwater with her mind closed, her decision made. She isn’t there to confirm the miracle, but to expose the fraud. She’s appalled by the weather, the food, the accommodations, and the fanatical superstitious religiousness of the local people. She mistrusts them all, wondering how many are in on the fraud and how many are simply gullible. She’s unimpressed, too, by the Catholic nun who is more concerned with obeying orders than with the child.

Over the first few days, Lib concentrates on discovering how food is being surreptitiously delivered. When she can find no evidence of this, she starts focusing on Anna. Why won’t the girl eat? And as it becomes clear that Anna is starving to death, Lib’s main concern becomes saving the child’s life.

Donoghue immerses the reader in the world of the protagonist, whose own murky backstory is only slowly revealed to the reader as the puzzle of Anna also starts to become clear. The novel’s momentum builds as Lib and the reader come to appreciate the strength of all the forces combined against the child, including the child’s own will.

The Wonder is beautifully written, horrifying, sad, and ultimately hopeful. 

No comments:

Post a Comment