I put off writing my review of The Wonder for a couple of weeks after reading Kim’s excellent review. I couldn’t see how I could add anything more. But I have taken some time to forget about what she wrote so that I can concentrate on my own notes.
Fans of Emma Donoghue will surely be picking this book up, but I hope that those of you who are new to Donoghue’s work will also consider reading it. Inspired by historical accounts of “Fasting Girls“, Donoghue has created a story about a young girl, her family, and her nurse.
In an Irish village very soon after the terrible Potato Famine, Anna has stopped taking food. For months she has supposedly been living off of nothing, which has caused a great stir. People want to come see her, they want to know if this is for real. So a committee is formed; one that includes the local doctor and priest. They hire two nurses to take turns watching over the girl to ensure that she isn’t secretly taking in sustenance.
Nurse Lib, who was trained by Florence Nightingale, travels to the village already with doubts as to the possibility of the situation. She imagines that she won’t be around long before the girl is discovered as a fraud. But, after a few days, it’s obvious to her that even if Anna had been receiving sustenance before the nurses began their watch, there certainly isn’t any way she could be now. Which means that the two-week watch could now be actually causing the girl to die. Lib tries to convince Anna to take food, but Anna refuses. Lib believes that if she can figure out the reason behind Anna’s decision to fast, she may be able to turn the tides. But what could it be?
One week exactly since Lib had arrived from London. So full of confidence she’d been – misplaced confidence in her own acuity, it had turned out. She’d thought to be back at the hospital by now, putting Matron in her place. Instead she was trapped here, in these same greasy-feeling sheets, no nearer to understanding Anna O’Donnell than she’d been a week ago. Only more muddled, and exhausted, and troubled by her own part in these events.
The beginning of the book, with the introduction to the story and the setting, immediately pulled me in; then there was a bit of a lag in the middle when I wondered if the rest of the book would just be Lib’s travels back and forth between the village and Anna’s cabin. But it picked up again as the race against time became obvious, and the frustrations Lib found herself coming up against in trying to deal with, and talk reason into, Anna’s family, her doctor, and the rest of the committee who were determined to see the two week observation period through to the end.
This is a good book; the history, the religious politics, the setting, and the characters. In particular, I found the attitudes and beliefs of the characters the most interesting aspect of the story. The doctor was hoping to make a great discovery; the possibility of human existence without the need for food. Anna’s family seemed paralyzed by their religious beliefs. And Nurse Lib was an interesting character; she made mistakes and held a prejudice against the Irish – one that represented the feelings about them in other parts of the world at the time (“What a rabble, the Irish. Shiftless, thriftless, hopeless, hapless, always brooding over past wrongs.”). But she was also strong and passionate about her cause, and a good nurse. “Good nurses follow rules… but the nest know when to break them.”
The end was an exciting finish, but felt a little too ‘fairy tale-ish’ for my tastes. However, I’m sure there will be many readers out there who will find it satisfying.
This book will do well. But as good as it is, and as popular as it will be, is it what the Giller jury is looking for? Are they looking for a good story? Or are they looking for a book that will make you question what you thought you knew, a book that will give you the urge to read it again, or one that leaves you with a burning desire to talk it over with friends? On November 7th, we will find out.
*Thank you to HarperCollins Canada for sending me a copy of this book for review!
A review in The Star calls The Wonder a “powerful exploration of religion and the sway it holds“.
A review in The New Yorker explores some of the history behind Donoghue’s book.
Emma Donoghue’s interview with Shelagh Rogers on The Next Chapter.