Though Emma Donoghue is likely best known for Room, her 2010 best-selling novel turned film, she more commonly writes historical fiction, raiding archives for odd and violent histories, particularly the lives of long dead women and children. With her latest novel, The Wonder, Donoghue has returned to this familiar territory.
The Wonder, Donoghue notes, is based on the nearly fifty cases of Fasting Girls, often adolescent girls who, between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries and largely in Europe, were hailed as marvels for surviving without food. The real historic girls claimed a variety of reasons for fasting, though religion was chief among them. The girls met a variety of fates; some inevitably died or were simply revealed as hoaxes, yet their ability to survive without sustenance captivated the public as well as doctors, religious men, and newspapers. It’s a macabre topic, but one that should be familiar enough to Donoghue fans (her entertaining 2001 novel Slammerkin is all violence and greed and murder).
Donoghue’s fasting girl is Anna O’Donnell, a poor 11-year-old living in Ireland less than a decade after the potato famine. By the time Donoghue’s book begins, Anna has not eaten for four months and in that time has become a local celebrity—Catholic pilgrims flock to her, believing that she is, as she claims, nourished by faith. Enter Elizabeth “Lib” Wright, a nurse trained by Florence Nightingale, who has been hired by a local committee to observe young Anna and ensure that her nourishment is indeed miraculous. Lib has secrets of her own and is pleased to leave the English hospital to travel across the Channel for a well-paid job, the details of which are unclear to her.
For the first hundred pages or so, Lib reflects on the barrenness of central Ireland, thinks a lot about how a lovely 11-year-old could create such an elaborate hoax and repeatedly references her Nightingale credentials. The setup to the primary plot and its inevitable twists lag a bit, but the heart of the book is in Anna’s pain, which has been buried beneath layers of religious mysticism and all of its trappings. Lib, an Englishwoman committed to the rational observations of science, has little use for Anna’s beliefs, an intense religiosity she shares with her mother and father. She sticks instead to what she can see and thus knows. Lib measures Anna’s body, taking notes on what appear to be early symptoms of malnutrition: downy body hair, blue fingernails, and swollen feet. The signs of malnutrition—of Anna’s suffering, a theme that drives The Wonder—are already there. Lib believes that under her close supervision, the secret feedings will quickly be uncovered, and the O’Donnells will soon be exposed as the frauds they are.
But plots are rarely that simple in Donoghue novels. Instead of Lib uncovering the schemes of an impoverished and religious family, Anna begins to starve to death. “A delightful dying child,” Donoghue repeats throughout the second half of the book as the novel transitions from setting and character to a domestic thriller of sorts. Lib begins to wonder if “the Watch be having the perverse effect of turning the O’Donnells’ lie to truth?” Lib is left to unravel a series of family secrets—the kinds that are both distressing and all too familiar.
Donoghue draws from a handful of themes she explored in her earlier novels, most evidently a woman and child isolated in a small room, beholden to power dynamics created by men who want to believe—who either have or want the cache of faith or science or money—and the women and children who are left grasping. Anna’s refusal of food is, in The Wonder, her only source of power.
There are also gothic elements that are a familiar staple of her historical fiction: women with secrets, whispering townsfolk, creepy religious men, and an appearance by Ireland’s famous bogs. Donoghue can overreach when looking for the grand theme, often landing deep in cliché. That’s certainly the case with The Wonder, the contrast between rational science and the ignorance of religion; physical starvation and spiritual nourishment; Lib’s pain and Anna’s abuse are overworked at times, but ultimately resolved. The big theme has never been Donoghue’s strength; instead, she’s her best when she explores the pain of women and children, rendered always as three-dimensional characters set in a plot just eerie enough to keep a reader’s attention.
Stephen King recently described The Wonder as a “page turner.” That’s both a compliment and an accurate description of this book and Donoghue’s novels in general. The novel is a quick read (I finished in two readings)—it’s all spectacle and gothic horror and inevitably hard to put down.