Reviewed by Menaka Raman-Wilms
The Wonder, Emma Donoghue’s latest book, is a story that disarms in its simplicity. It is set in the 1850s in a small Irish village, where eleven year-old Anna has been declared a ‘wonder’: she hasn’t eaten in four months, yet is strong enough as any other child. With her fast beginning to attract celebrity, a local committee has called in nurses to monitor her continuously for two weeks and attest to the family’s claim that Anna is subsisting on faith.
One of the nurses is Lib, an Englishwoman who arrives determined to expose the fraud that she’s sure Anna and her family are perpetrating. But as Lib attempts to uncover how Anna is surreptitiously getting food, she begins to unravel the family’s secrets. Without being completely aware of it, Lib develops affection for the girl and forms a connection that cannot be easily undone. Lib works to care for Anna and uncover the truth of her illness, but the child nevertheless begins to waste away before her eyes.
Inspired by the real histories of so-called fasting girls and women, The Wonder examines the human motivations and emotions that lie beneath religious metaphor. It is highly symbolic, yet not overdone, subtle, yet captivating. It is Emma Donoghue at her finest.
The story follows the nurse Lib, who doesn’t seem to be restricted by tradition or expectations, perhaps as a result of her own lack of faith. She’s much smarter and more compassionate than the men she reports to, and she rushes into everything, confident she knows what’s going on even when she’s wrong. She can be rather clumsy and brash without meaning to, good-hearted, and always aware of her status as an Englishwoman in Ireland. She’s unique and quite likeable, and carries the story incredibly well.
Lib seems rather modern for her time, which also speaks to the gendered expectations that lurk quietly in the background of the story. The book plays with ideas of religious and familial duties, and of how society assigns fault and blame. In this sense, it also encourages us to look at the histories of fasting girls with a more nuanced understanding.
On some levels, The Wonder operates as a mystery slowly uncovered by Lib, pulled back layer by layer. The secrets that are brought to light are suggested at a tantalizingly steady pace. The simplicity of the story is, at first, disarming – Lib, not unlike the reader, thinks she understands what’s going on. But there are secrets that you suspect are there, and then there are secrets that you had no idea were buried beneath it all. The pacing of these reveals throughout the novel is brilliantly done.
The strength of The Wonder lies in the way it mixes the metaphoric with the everyday, in the way the highly symbolic nature of religion and religious devotion is discussed next to raw human physicality. It’s about life’s grand metaphors and what happens to them when they come up against the literal truth of a child, or the compassion of a stranger. It’s a story not easily forgotten.
The Wonder is published by Harper Collins, and is on the shortlist for the 2016 Giller Prize.