In Emma Donoghue’s latest novel, set in the mid-1800’s, Nightingale trained, British nurse Lib finds herself in the midlands of Ireland, hired by a local council to watch 11 year old Anna O’Donnell (The Wonder of the title) who, according to the family, has survived for 4 months with no food. Lib must observe to see if the child is somehow receiving food or if this is a miracle. Lib shares watch duty with a stoic Irish Catholic nun but is unsure where her loyalties lie and whether she will be a help or hinderance.
Lib focuses on science and observation, although is guilty of relying on stereotypes and prejudgement of the Irish. She assumes, wrongly of course, that a deception will be easily uncovered and she’ll be home soon. In the course of her watch she meets a journalist who helps turn her view, see what is before her, and helps her find the courage to try to save Ana. What is observed and whether those prejudices alter her observations remain in tension with each other throughout. The question for much of the book for the audience is when does Lib’s observation make the situation worse and when will Lib see what seems obvious to the audience.
Ana at first appears to be a etherial child who is wrapped up in the superstition of her religion and Lib believes Ana is being used by the family. As the novel progresses we learn that nothing is that simple and Ana’s attempt at objectivity is compromised by her developing a relationship and caring for the child. We learn more of Lib’s own past and how that past changes the audience’s understanding of Lib. The more Lib gets to know Ana, and understands what is happening, the more she realizes her own role in the harm being done to Ana.
Donoghue steadily moves the plot along, focusing it largely in the confines of the small house and Ana’s room. Those who have read Donoghue’s other work will know she excels in writing in these settings. Confinement runs through the novel in many forms and affects characters in different ways. Donoghue puts her deep research on the post-famine years in Ireland and the specifics of Irish Catholicism of the period to good use, as well as details of Florence Nightgale’s impact on nursing, building a story that moves from personal to larger back to personal. Despite the main character’s skepticism and prejudice, all the characters are sympathetic and not painted as stereotypes.
My one, minor issue is that I’m unsure of the necessity of one aspect of the resolution – the why all this has occurred — I do question if it was needed. But overall, the story works, and the tension and pacing are well-done.
Donoghue is a powerful writer who creates powerful voices and strong, flawed characters that the audience can identify with. She weaves an engrossing picture of whatever world those characters inhabit with the authenticity of research and imagination. Inspired by the history of religious fasting, Donoghue, in The Wonder, has created yet another dark mystery that focuses more on the impact of events on characters rathan than solving the mystery.