On the Giller Prize 2016 shortlist, this latest book by Irish/Canadian author Emma Donoghue (author of Room), features Elizabeth (Lib) Wright, a dedicated and talented former “Florence Nightingale nurse.” Being summoned from England for a special job, Lib finds herself in the midst of a difficult case in rural Ireland, post potato famine. It’s actually interesting to note that this novel is set primarily in one small room as well, with a woman and child at the centre.
Eleven year old Anna O’Donnell has refused food for 4 months and yet appears to be in miraculously good health. In The Wonder, Donoghue explores through historical fiction, the phenomenon of the “fasting girls.” Fasting Girls were adolescent girls in the 1700-1800s who were hailed as marvels for surviving without food, giving them special religious or magical powers. Lib’s job is to observe the girl to help a committee decide if she is a celebrity wonder or if there is something fraudulent or sinister at work. At first it seems a straightforward enough task, but as she becomes more involved she fears for Anna’s life. Is Anna the victim of slow motion murder?
This is a hugely atmospheric novel, short and easy to read, and compelling because of the setting, complete with murky Irish bogs, family secrets, gossip, creepy religious men, and a little romance for good measure. There’s a lot more to this novel than the simple solid story: English snobbery vs. Irish tradition, Catholic vs. Protestant, science vs. faith, and women vs. men. The author really made me care about the characters and it was a page turner in that sense, although not much happens outside of the central mystery: what is going on with Anna and why does she so stalwartly continue to refuse food? The pacing does pick up in the last half and I must say I still can’t decide if I found the ending brilliant or deeply clichéd. I think it might be the latter, but I’d love to know what you think.