Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

When Lib Wright, a nurse trained by Florence Nightingale in the Crimea War, is hired to watch over Anna O’Donnell, an eleven-year-old girl in a remote Irish village in the 1850s, she doubts the claims of the girl and her family. Everyone in the town believes a miracle is occurring as young Anna has seemingly survived without eating for months. Tourists are flocking to the cabin to see Anna and claim some of her miracle for themselves. Lib believes in science so she knows it can’t be true. She and a nursing nun take eight-hour shifts watching Anna and neither see her taste even a morsel. 

Anna, a charming child, truly believes that she hasn’t eaten for four months, but it simply isn’t be possible. That conundrum leads to exquisite tension as the question of miracle versus hoax is explored. The skeptical Lib is soon drawn into something of a friendship with Anna and her observations show her growing affection for the girl. Donoghue’s language is lyrical and precise yet never pretentious as seen in this passage:
“The child’s face on the pillow was a fallen fruit. Puffier around the eyes this morning, Lib noticed, perhaps from lying flat all night. One cheek scored red by a pillow crease. Anna’s body was a blank page that recorded everything that happened to it.”

The novel with its perfect evocation of the dank cabin and superstitious village is reminiscent of Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites and of Geraldine Brooks Year of Wonders. It also captures the conflict between faith and fact and the prejudices of the time against Catholics that make us look at our own biases. Donoghue, best known for her novel The Room, has long been acclaimed for her historical fiction and her skills are remarkable whatever period she illuminates. 

Donoghue’s story is fiction, but it’s inspired by almost fifty cases of so-called Fasting Girls, who supposedly survived without food for long periods between the sixteenth and twentieth century in Britain, Europe, and North America. Some had religious motives, others not. These girls’ stories and Donoghue’s own background growing up in Dublin where she attended Catholic convent schools infuse The Wonder with historical accuracy and a convincing feel for setting and people. With starred reviews from both Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, Donoghue once again delivers a spellbinding tale.

The five chapter titles and their definitions are nominees for my personal museum of original, pragmatic headings. The chapters are titled Nurse, Watch, Fast, Vigil, and Shift. Upon opening the book to Chapter One, Nurse, the following words appear:
            to suckle an infant
            to bring up a child
            to take care of the sick
Each of these definitions reflects what’s to come in the chapter and offer not only foreshadowing, but a glimpse into Donoghue’s creative genius. On every level – chapter titles, an engrossing story, engaging characters, and exacting language – The Wonder delivers.

Summing It Up: Read The Wonder to fall into 1850s rural Ireland and what may be a miracle as a young girl seemingly goes without food for months. Join a scientifically trained nurse in her skepticism and wonder from your 21st Century perch as you feel that you’ve time-traveled to a tiny village in the middle of Ireland. The Wonder is a wonder of tension and storytelling dexterity.

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Gourmet, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Pigeon Pie, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: September 20, 2016
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1 comment:

  1. I wasn't sure how excited to get about this. Room was so well done but I still really struggled reading it. I'm going to have to get this on my library list. Great review!