Review: The Wonder by Emma Donoghue


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.

Novel Review: The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss


The trope of the ordinary family facing a medical emergency which tries their relationships is the bones of a thousand TV soaps. Sarah Moss’s The Tidal Zone opens with such a medical emergence, a teenager’s unexpected anaphylaxis and cardiac arrest. It is an incident which would occupy five minutes’ attention on a hospital soap. Moss, however, eschews sensationalism. Instead she takes the incidence and its consequences and stretches out onto a broad, rich canvas, tracing the ripples it sends out through time and memory. She pulls the reader through the narrative with the hooks of so called “sick lit”, but avoids high-octane drama and a simplistic resolution. We are instead given an exquisite exploration of parental anxiety, dependence and human frailty.

The novel is written from the perspective of Adam Goldschmidt, a ‘househusband’ sporadically employed as a lecturer, whose daughter Miriam suddenly and inexplicable goes into cardiac arrest in a field at school. Adam’s voice is well realised, he is astute yet uncynical. For example, when he yearns for normality Moss captures both Adam’s extreme distress and self-awareness well, in “May we live long enough to despise the cliches again, may we heal enough to take for granted the sky and water and light, because the state of blind gratitude for breath and blood is not a position of intelligence.”Adam knows how his crisis pales in comparison to the endless global massacres that flicker by on the news. Crisis and emotional turmoil are written without sentimentality, but it is not dispassionate.We share in Adam’s anxiety which drives him to his children’s rooms at night to check they are still breathing, the novel is tense with foreboding and dread which Moss thankfully doesn’t give into releasing in a sensationalist conclusion.

Adam is the archetype of the good modern father. Gender politics savvy, devoted to his children and overworked GP wife but knows not to crow about it. A man in a woman’s world, he washes his daughter’s underwear yet gets suspected of paedophilia for taking his daughter to a swimming pool. He’s at the cross hairs of a culture war. He enjoys the routines of family life and is ambivalent about the academic world he drifts through, playing with toy knights in a meeting. Without over-egging the point (as Adam would no doubt insist upon) it is refreshing to see a father embrace without regret the domestic life, and it not be the focus of the novel, it would work just as well if Adam and his wife Emma swapped roles.

An interesting aspect of this novel is the relationship between Miriam and Adam. Miriam is a moderately rebellious whip-sharp fifteen year old. She’s at a stage where she can sign herself up to a political party but needs to be reminded to wear her coat. She fucked the patriarchy and got the T-shirt, but her parents won’t let her wear the shirt in public. She is not the tragic elfin heroine of much YA sick lit. Adam is a moderating influence on her rather than a disciplinarian, and respects her independence and unique vivacity. His is not a smothering love but an awestruck love. He seems to ask himself, “how have I made that?” The parent’s manner of seeing their own children as miracles brings into focus the miraculous nature of a human life even beginning and continue to be, but no amount of love can stop a body from failing.

Scattered through the narrative of Miriam’s anaphylaxis is exerts from Adam’s history of the rebuild of Coventry Cathedral after it’s destruction in the Blitz. The theme of recovery and moving past trauma, medical and architectural, is obvious, and shows well how an academic’s subject colours their personal life. Less successful are Adam’s grandfather’s tales of his Holocaust-survivor parents and his time in communes, which add little to a novel already rich in meaning.

But the novel’s structure is wonderful. It’s tight, neat focus on the days between Miriam’s cardiac arrest to a holiday six months later stops it from bloating indulgently. The chapters are slices of no more than ten pages which make the narrative as episodic as life and memory and allowing the other narrative threads to slot between the main events.

Aside from what the blurb would tell you there is no real plot to The Tidal Zone If it was accidentally shelved next to the misery memoirs and sick lit, there would be a lot of disappointed customers, to give no spoilers. But Moss’ more impressionistic literary approach captures what crisis and trauma is really like. Those events that feel like a punch but lingers like a bruise, changing the skin but not developing.

In The Tidal Zone, Moss shows how crisis crystallizes what would otherwise slip you by, and acts as a catalyst for seeing the past and the future differently.