I first heard of Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder when it was read as the Book at Bedtime on Radio 4 (after all, middle age starts at nineteen). I only caught a few wisps of dialogue but was intrigued by the premise; in a barely post-famine Ireland, a pious eleven year old girl has refused food for four months, and a nurse and a nun have been employed to keep watch over her to see if this claim is true or not.
I knew of Emma Donoghue from Room (which I have regrettably yet to read) but it was the theme of the Victorian Fasting Girl that lead me to my first book of her’s. I was familiar with anorexia mirabilis from the over-intellectualizing that constituted my eating disorder recovery. These (almost without exception) women and girls claimed to be nourished by God so spurned earthly food, as the eleven year old Anna claims. Anna is pious in the extreme, understandable for a girl with little else to do in a poor household in the Middle of Ireland. The miraculous fasting girl has attracted the attention of pilgrims and the secular press alike, and a committee significantly biased towards believing the claims has employed two nurses to keep watch. These are a mysterious Sister of Mercy and a Nightingale trained nurse from England, Lib, our narrator. Between them, Lib and Sister Michael must watch Anna continually for two weeks, and Donoghue conveys well the feat of endurance such tedious work is.
The narrative is framed to give a tight spatial and temporal focus; the reader arrives with Lib the outsider at the farm house and we stay for the two week watch. In this claustrophobic setting, the body and habits of a young girl are observed with clinical detail for signs of the scam Lib is sure is happening. Lib is only employed as a pair of trained eyes to ensure that Anna is not being fed on the sly, but inevitably concern for her patient’s wellbeing surfaces. As the days bear on, Lib probes into the community, with some help from out of town reporter William Byrne, trying to uncover why Anna believes that she should not eat earthly food. As Anna’s health starts to deteriorate, Lib’s desire to save Anna generates suspense masterfully. Lib becomes Anna’s defender against the committee who sees her only as a symbol, not as a real girl.
When considering the novel as a whole, it is clear that Anna is a character carefully maintaining a carapace as the perfect devout child, but behind which yawns a chasm of trauma which Lib only uncovers when the immortal currents of the society is revealed. Anna’s obsessive faith leaves her in a bind, it is both her coping method and means of destruction. Donoghue creates a subtle and psychological astute portrait of how trauma and stigma can consume a person when a society colludes to shame her and encourage self-destruction.
The historical setting of the novel is intriguing. Donoghue has clearly done her research, the Author’s Note credits a source on 19th century Catholic devotional objects. It is also an interesting take on the story of the Scutari nurses. Everyone thinks they know about Florence Nightingale, but what happened to her nurses, trained in novel nursing methods? For Lib, she languished unappreciated in English hospitals before taking up a temporary job in Ireland. Here she faces an unfamiliar world of a quasi-feudal world, steeped in a Catholicism mixed with a belief in fairies. Lib arrives with a thick veneer of prejudices against the reported miracle, Catholicism (but really religion as a whole) and the Irish. The initial sneeriness of the narrative voice does jar as I find it hard to believe that a well-educated nurse would be so ignorant and prejudiced as Lib is, despite her nationality. Her slowness at realizing the whereabouts of the O’Donnell boy also leaves me incredulous, a Victorian nurse would surely consider the possibility that a child could have died. But despite these initial false steps, as the novel progresses Lib’s skepticism is laid aside as the watch continues and her nurse’s compassion and maternal affection towards Anna grows. In the end, the novel is a tribute to the power of compassion across cultural and religious boundaries.
Donoghue’s real achievement here is to create a novel as compelling as a thriller from the close details of the bodily suffering and psychological trauma of a young girl. Between the excruciating details of a child who is clearly starving and the burning compassion of her nurse the reader is whisked deftly along to the only (happy) conclusion a book like this could have; in three words – fire and emigration.
For more on the book, see the publisher’s website