An English nurse — seemingly cold, discerning and aloof on first impression — is brought to a small Irish village to observe the ‘miracle’ of an eleven-year-old girl who has fasted for months and believes herself to be living off manna from heaven. It is Lib Wright’s job to keep watch over this young girl to prove whether she is a miracle or a fraud, but like any other good book, her mission is not as easy as it would appear.
The Wonder is an exploration of faith, fasting and morality, and is based on the many cases of ‘fasting girls’ reported around the globe from the 16th to the 20th centuries: women and girls who claimed to live without food for months on end. I feel Emma Donoghue’s latest novel also speaks to the present day general public’s fascination with women’s and girl’s appearances: how we are forever on public display for ogling and comment by men and women alike, whether it be solicited or not (as is usually the case).
Though slow to start, Donoghue draws you into her latest suspenseful drama with a precarious, but well-balanced, mix of everyday occurrences, emotion and historical details. The runaway success of Room left Donoghue with a hard act to follow but The Wonder has done so with aplomb. My qualifier? I changed my mind about Lib. At first I disliked this curt-mannered woman who seemed unkind and dismissive of the opinions and beliefs of those around her. However, in the end, after learning about her devastating past and seeing her strength and determination to do right by Anna, her eleven-year-old charge, Lib won me over. For me, an author’s ability to persuade me to change my mind (whether it be about a character, topic or event) speaks volumes about the humanness of their writing. It’s a quality that is crucial to the storytelling nature of any good book; after all, why do we read fiction, if not to be swept away by a story?
The one part of the story which failed to sweep me away though was Lib’s romance with the reporter, William Byrne. We spend much of the novel understanding that Lib is a strong woman who has gotten through much of what life has thrown her way with her own strength and determination, only to be swept off her feet by a reporter. I felt as though the romance was unnecessary to the plot; its presence necessitated by a public expectation of a romantic sub-plot, rather than required by the narrative.
The Wonder is a psychologically thrilling read — an old-school ‘page-turner’, if you will, with a convenient, happy ending.
1. What religious, cultural or moral parallels does The Wonder have with today’s affairs of the same subject?
2. If Emma Donoaghue omitted the romance between Lib and Byrne, what ending would you write?
3. What lengths would you go to in order to preserve your family and community?
Our next book is ‘Swing Time’ by Zadie Smith