From the very beginning of The Wonder, author Emma Donoghue sets up clear foci for narrative drama – the English versus the Irish; science and logic versus folklore and superstition; a single woman versus a group of powerful men; fundamentalism and faith versus common sense and love – and uses the phenomenon of the Victorian-era ‘fasting girls’ to explore these themes.
Eleven-year-old Anna O’Donnell hasn’t eaten for four months, yet remains alive and well. Newspaper reports proclaiming Anna’s existence a miracle; visits and donations from people paying homage; and the curiosity of doctors and priests, prompts the employment of a British nurse, Lib Wright, to investigate whether Anna is a fraud. Lib, an atheist and a highly experienced nurse, is dismissive of the religious devotion and folklore that drives the small town, and believes she will quickly expose the secret feeding of Anna.
“The girl was charming, in her unworldly way. Lib found it hard to keep in mind that Anna was a trickster, a great liar in a country famous for them.”
However, after days of close surveillance, Lib begins to wonder whether she is turning the O’Donnell’s ruse into a reality. What follows is not so much a ‘whodunnit’, but a ‘why’?
I couldn’t help but compare The Wonder to Hannah Kent’s The Good People. Both books were released around the same time last year, and both focus on folklore versus ‘common sense’. The Wonder succeeded where The Good People did not – integration of Irish fairy tales and superstition was seamless in Donoghue’s story, and added to the narrative (whereas in Kent’s story, I felt the detail was laboured).
Complementing the folklore elements of the story were the religious. Lib dismisses Anna’s faith and prayers as “mumbo-jumbo” in favour of science and logic, although Anna’s family and the broader community hold fast to their beliefs. The famine is recent history and the townsfolk are all too familiar with hunger, loss and grief –
“…a child now eleven must have been born into hunger. Weaned on it, reared on it; that had to shape a person. … every thrifty inch of Anna’s body had learned to make do with less.”
Although the story flagged a little toward the middle, it was intriguing enough to prompt me to further research the ‘fasting girls’. Donoghue provides enough twists toward the end to surprise the reader, and equally to leave them pondering Lib’s beliefs.
3/5 A solid choice if you’re after an historical thriller.
I received my copy of The Wonder from the publisher, Little Brown & Company, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
‘…Lib saw that stirabout meant porridge. She realized that this was probably her dinner… “Take some salt,” said Kitty. Lib shook her head at the pot with its little spoon. “Go on,” said Kitty, “it keeps the little ones off.” Lib looked askance at the maid. Was she referring to flies? As soon as Kitty had left the room, Anna spoke up in a whisper. “She means the little people.” Lib didn’t understand… “Fairies?” Incredulous.’