I received this book for free from Brown and Company, NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.The Wonder by Emma Donoghue
on September 20th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Contemporary Women, Family Life, Literary, Religious
Format: Electronic ARC
Source: Brown and Company, NetGalley
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Eleven-year-old Anna O’ Donnell insists that she’s been living off the manna of heaven for the last four months and no longer needs food to survive. Her parents and community seem to blindly accept the claim. People travel from great distances for a chance to interact with this living miracle. To appease any skeptics, a committee hires two watchers to observe Anna over a two-week period. One of the watchers is Lib Wright, a nurse who worked under Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War. She considers resigning as soon as she finds out the details of the job, but decides to keep her commitment with the assumption that she’ll be able expose the hoax in couple of days.
A fast didn’t go fast; it was the slowest thing there was. Fast meant a door shut fast, firmly. A fastness, a fortress. To fast was to hold fast to emptiness, to say no and no and no again.
Lib arrives on the scene ready to expose the girl’s deception. She searches every nook and cranny for the tiniest of crumbs and keeps meticulous records of all the girl’s vital signs. She is concerned about the integrity of the investigation, because she doesn’t fully trust the the second watcher, a nun, to be as scrupulous with her observations. As Lib spends time with the girl, her attitude softens and her concerns become more complicated. Emma Donoghue writes her characters so empathetically that they make my heart ache. I felt every bit of Lib’s psychological journey as if it were my own. I desperately clung to the hope that one of the adults in Anna’s life would take control of the situation. It was frustrating to watch the obviously capable nurse being disregarded and being forced to make “her voice as soft and womanly as she could” in hopes that the “important men” would listen to her concerns. Even though I could relate to Lib’s incredulity, I liked when her preconceived notions were called into question. The skeptical journalist William Byrne makes her confront her homeland’s part in intensifying the culture she has been so prejudiced against. She admonishes one character for telling Anna a “lurid” religious tale, but she discovers that she had greatly misinterpreted the situation: “I don’t think you understand our stories, ma’am.”
“Do you know what indelible means?” [Lib]
“A stain that won’t come off.” [Anna]
The mystery of the girl is intriguing, but there’s also an interesting historical context. In the Authors Note, Donoghue tells how she was inspired by the phenomenon of Fasting Girls between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries. The characters that Lib encounters were affected by the Irish famine, which ended seven years before Anna’s fasting began. Lib’s background leads to interesting reflections on the many lessons she learned from Florence Nightingale. The setting of Athlone, Ireland made me feel confined. Most of the scenes are set in Anna’s bedroom or in the spirit grocery that Lib is staying in, with occasional jaunts into the bog lands. It feels even more isolating because of Lib’s culture shock. Lib is an unwelcome outsider trying to navigate this unfamiliar world where everyone seems to be talking in code, a strange mix of Catholicism and superstition. Language is a very important element of the story. There are many miscommunications and misinterpretations. Each chapter begins with a single word and it’s multiple definitions, calling attention to the numerous ways that words and phrases can be interpreted. This also comes across in the riddles that Lib uses to entertain Anna.
Like small gods, children formed their miniature worlds out of clay, or even just words. To them, the truth was never simple.
Lib spends her two weeks in Athlone grappling with the incredible situation she has been thrust into and attempting to logically find a solution to this real-life riddle. This slow-building mystery had me riveted! All the questions I needed answered kept me captivated to the very end. Why did Anna suddenly decide to stop eating? What are the potential motives for the adults in her life to play along with a charade that would endanger a child? How has she survived four months if she has only consumed spoonfuls of water? How have they been sneaking her food and who is responsible? Is it possible that she really is a miracle? Will Anna survive the fast? Will Lib convince anyone to listen to her concerns? How will she overcome her ethical dilemmas? Great characters, well-drawn setting, and interesting moral and ethical issues.