On the heels of the huge success of the film adaptation of her novel Room, Emma Donoghue’s 2016 release, The Wonder, is a well-written tale of a British nurse, Lib, sent to Ireland to ascertain the veracity of a claim of a girl who claims to have survived without food for four months. Donoghue states in her author’s note that though this particular story is fiction, the story of “fasting girls” is rooted in the history of nineteenth century England and Ireland.
The Wonder, though completely different in genre, has a very similar feel to Room at the onset. Though the book is filled with lush descriptions of the Irish countryside, the majority of the book takes place in one small room where Lib, trained by none other than Florence Nightingale, has been sent to watch over a young girl who inspires the title of the novel. She is a wonder to those in the small village where she resides because she and her family insist she has had nothing to eat since she took her first communion four months prior to Lib’s arrival. Taking place only seven years after the Irish suffered through the potato famine, English born Lib is confronted with the distrust of the people around her while she tries to fulfill her duty. She has been invited, along with Sister Michael to simply watch the girl make sure she is truly living without food or if the family is perpetrating some kind of hoax in order to obtain money and notoriety.
Initially, Lib is extremely skeptical and sure that she will sniff out the deception in a day and be back home in England. However, as the days tick by and the young girl’s health slowly begins to deteriorate, Lib is confronted with an internal struggle about whether or not she should interfere with this extremely religious young girl, and her equally pious family.
The book is rich with history of post-famine Ireland, deep-rooted Irish superstition, and not-so-subtle allusions to Lib’s education with “Ms. N” (Florence Nightingale) during the Crimean War. Even the core story itself is touching at times and pulls at the heartstrings of those who understand the suffering others are willing to undergo at the hands of the brutal knife of guilt. However, the over-sentimentality of the contrived loved story thrown in toward the end of the novel, and the over-used “dark family secret” plotline made me roll my eyes a few times.
All of that notwithstanding, the book was enjoyable, though not as smooth as Room. Lib is an easy character to relate to as she shakes her head at the notoriously superstitious Irish and their intense devotion to saints and the church. I found myself rooting for her in her attempt to persuade those around her to find understanding in reason and science instead of the faded cards with paintings of the patron saints. The novel is worth the read, despite its shortcomings, and I look forward to what Donoghue will write next.
Featured image courtesy of Amazon