Since reading Room years ago I’ve followed Emma Donoghue closely and read a number of her books, but I’ve never found one which could top the Booker-nominated, film-inspiring sensation that was Room. But this one come pretty damn close. I’m not sure I’d say The Wonder quite surpasses Room, but it stands in its own right as a riveting piece of historical fiction.
The story takes place in middle Ireland, a few years after the Great Famine. Lib Wright, an English nurse who trained under Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, is called to the area to take an unusual position. Her ward is Anna O’Donnell, an eleven-year-old who who has supposedly not eaten a morsel of food for four months. Lib is required to simply watch the young girl, and report her observations to a committee after two weeks.
On learning her task, Lib is instantly cynical and determined to expose the charade she believes has been allowed to go on too long within the small-minded, devoutly Catholic community. But as she begins her work she finds the girl strangely beguiling, and the mystery behind the supposed fast goes deeper than she initially thought. How is Anna surviving when Lib has seen with her own eyes that the girl is going without food? Is there something underhand going on? Or could the girl be a genuine wonder?
Admittedly, the plot moves fairly slowing for the first two thirds of this novel, but this only allows Donoghue the time and space to truly build the atmosphere, setting and characters. There’s a huge sense of isolation and confinement, both literally and emotionally; Lib is an outsider in a close-knit community and she’s stranded in an extremely rural location, required to spend hours at a time cramped in the small cabin bedroom where Anna lives out the majority of her days. It doesn’t help that Lib is a woman and a nurse in a society where these two attributes render her opinion very little respect in comparison to the local male doctor or priest. It was frustrating to read at times as Lib fought to get to the truth against a stifling, oppressively religious community, but it made for fascinating reading.
The character development was also brilliantly done. As the novel starts out, Lib isn’t hugely likeable – she instantly looks upon the community and her job with disdain, determined to expose a scam and get back to her life in England as quickly as possible. But gradually, another side to the stern nurse is revealed, as the story delves deeper into her past and Lib and Anna develop a tentative relationship. By the end I was completely invested in both of them, and as Donoghue brought things to a head in the dramatic last third of the novel, it was utterly unputdownable. Whether you enjoy realistic historical fiction, a tense psychological drama or a touching character study, I highly recommend this book.