Little, Brown and Company: 9/20/16
eBook review copy; 304 pages
The Wonder by Emma Donoghue is very highly recommended historical fiction novel set in rural Ireland, 1859.
Lib Wright, a nurse who trained under Florence Nightingale, is hired to travel to Athlone, Ireland. There she is to simply keep watch over eleven-year-old Anna O'Donnell. Anna has reportedly not eaten in four months, and yet is supposedly healthy. Lib and another nurse, who happens to be a nun, have been hired by Dr. McBrearty, the family's physician, and a local committee to provide twenty-four hour surveillance of Anna for a period of two weeks. They are to record if Anna is eating or drinking anything without discussing their observations with each other. Clearly they are present to determine if Anna's claim is a hoax or a miracle.
It is evident to Lib that Anna, a devout Catholic girl who claims to be living off manna from heaven, is not entirely healthy. It is also clear that the doctor wants to believe Anna is the embodiment of a miracle. Tourists are already coming to the family's cabin to see the Wonder. Lib records Anna's vital statistics and notices that since the nurses arrival, Anna's health is deteriorating. Anna claims she has not eaten, but what could be the logical explanation for her survival for four months and is the presence of the nurses going to mean her death? And why are all the adults in Anna's life willing to let her kill herself by starvation in deference to some idea of piety and reverence?
Lib becomes more and more attached to Anna, while at the same time she tries to find a logical answer to the girl's situation. Obviously something is going to have to happen, some break-through is going to have to be made or Anna will die.
The inspiration for Donoghue's novel is based on the true cases of nearly 50 "Fasting Girls" from the 16th to the 20th centuries who were from the British Isles, western Europe, and North America. She also includes detailed descriptions of period customs and social behavior of the characters, including the overwhelming prevalence of Catholicism in the daily routine of Anna and the O'Donnell family. Lib must negotiate this unknown culture and decode the words and language they are using. Language and the meaning of words is an essential element in The Wonder. In fact, each chapter opens with a single word, followed by the multiple definitions for the usage of the word. It is obvious that unless the usage of a word is understood by all parties, miscommunications can/will occur.
This is an incredibly well-written, compelling novel that will grip you and hold you immersed in the time period and setting until the end. The suspense and the tension deepen slowly, incrementally, and are amplified as the narrative progresses and more information is revealed. There is a claustrophobic atmosphere in the tightly clannish society and the small cottage set in the isolated country side. Anna's behavior is constricted; she is following societal rules above and beyond normal expectations. In sharp contrast, Lib has broken societal rules in her training with Florence Nightingale and her out outspokenness. I loved the ending.