What a compulsive read this is, starting slowly until its questions had me sneaking a few pages when I should have been working. The premise of The Wonder by Emma Donoghue sounds straightforward: a nurse and a nun are employed to observe and accompany an eleven-year old girl in rural Ireland who is surviving on ‘manna from heaven’. Is she a miracle or a fraud?
This story is very far from straightforward. The task of Nurse Elizabeth Wright, who trained under Miss Nightingale at Scutari during the Crimean War, is to watch and and ensure no food is secretly passing the child’s lips. Strangely, for a nurse, Lib is not responsible for the health of the girl. A local committee, set-up to establish if Anna O’Donnell is secretly eating or if there is a religious wonder living in their village, pays the wages of two nurses, Lib and Sister Michael, for two weeks.
Accepting nothing until she can prove it herself, Lib approaches her task with professional thoroughness, observing, measuring, weighing. Feeling isolated in a cramped home, surrounded by a religion she does not practise or understand, Lib gets little help from local doctor Mr McBrearty or priest Mr Thaddeus. Not knowing who she can trust, she trusts no one; turning away visitors to the O’Donnell home who want to see the holy girl, visitors who donate alms to a collecting box near the door. When a journalist from Dublin says it is clearly a hoax and accuses Lib of speeding Anna’s death – that the all-day watch is denying her the morsels of food she must have been earlier fed – she is horrified and is forced to reassess her role.
The first half is a slow slow build but so worth it for the second half; with an ending I didn’t expect. This story has many layers. Lib, with her scientific approach to religion, is appalled at what she sees as inconsistencies and fantasies of the O’Donnell family’s Catholic beliefs. They accept and do not question. As the story progresses, Lib untangles Anna’s beliefs and in the process re-examines her own.
Not an easy read, The Wonder tackles the emotional subjects of religion and abuse set within the context of rural Ireland in the 1850s. Donoghue is an author who defies description; each novel is so different from its predecessor. With The Wonder, she has again confounded my expectations. Excellent.
Read my review of Donoghue’s Frog Music.
If you like this, try:-
‘Birdcage Walk’ by Helen Dunmore
‘Day’ by AL Kennedy
‘House of Names’ by Colm Tóibín
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
THE WONDER by @EDonoghueWriter #bookreview http://wp.me/p5gEM4-2Z1 via @SandraDanby