The Wonder, set in Athlone, a village in the Irish midlands post the 1845-1852 potato famine, unfolds during a two week period in August 1859. It is about Anna O’Donnell, an eleven year old mourning the loss of her older brother, Pat who’d died the previous November. The girl is locked in a fast and appears to have consumed solely water the past four months. Perplexed as to whether Anna’s survival a miracle or hoax, a local committee hires two women to observe her round-the-clock.
Elizabeth (Lib) Wright, a Florence Nightingale trained nurse who ministered during the 1853-1856 Crimean War and Sister Michael, a Roman Catholic nun and nurse are required to work separate shifts. They are ordered to refrain from discussion and issue independent reports as to whether or not Anna fed. Rosaleen and Malachy O’Donnell, Anna’s parents insist their daughter and only child having eaten nothing; an allegation with which Father Thaddeus, the priest and Dr. McBrearty, the doctor overseeing her care concur. The action occurs primarily in Anna’s bedroom in the family cabin and environs.
A blend of fact and fiction, Emma Donoghue studied cases of “fasting girls” between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries as research for The Wonder. Among the issues examined are religion vs. superstition, mysticism vs. medicine, family secrets, parental love, loss and grief and the possibility of redemption and lives renewed.
The novel is organized in five chapters: nurse, watch, fast, vigil and shift. A reference to the title in Chapter One: Nurse instils intrigue as soon as the story begins. Each chapter starts with several definitions of the term with which it titled; a clever tool alerting the reader as to its theme plus catching his/her attention and prompting contemplation. An epilogue concludes the book.
An intriguing plot, the author excels at creating an authentic sense of place. Vivid descriptions paint a picture of the prevailing poverty as per this excerpt from Chapter One: Nurse of the O’Donnell’s cabin:
“The cabin was in need of a fresh coat of whitewash; pitched thatch brooded over three small squares of glass. At the far end, a cow byre stooped under the same roof.”
“She (Lib) noted a plain table, pushed against the windowless back wall….A curtain of old flour sacks nailed up….The blackened chimney hood was woven of wattle. There was a square hollow on either side of the fire, and what Lib guessed was a salt box nailed high up.”
The inclusion of historical references such as a jaunting car (pony cart), creepies (three-legged log stools), daguerreotype (early photograph) and use of peat as a fuel source serve another tool in this regard.
Details specific to nursing during this period also made this era come alive. Lib Wright nursed at Scutari, a barrack hospital in Istanbul and base during the Crimean War. Pertinent duties were explained in Chapter Two: Watch for which the following are examples:
“At Scutari, the nurses had had to root through storerooms for chloride of lime, tincture of opium, blankets, socks, firewood, flour, lice combs…. Torn up sheets became slings, sacks were stuffed to make tiny mattresses; desperation was the mother of the makeshift.”
Anna’s situation is complex as is the relationship she and Lib develop. Lib’s marital breakdown and the loss of her newborn contribute to the bond. Donoghue’s use of internal dialogue enables us to gain insight of this evolving dynamic. This text is from Chapter Three: Fast:
“Lib lay very still, eyes closed, but light prickled through the ids. Being tired didn’t mean one was capable of sleep, just as the need for food wasn’t the same as a relish for it. Which brought her back, as everything did, to Anna.”
The conclusion though not a surprise answers the question driving the plot. Without revealing the ending, however, I felt the resolution a tad unbelievable and rather disappointing. Whilst most of the characters well-developed, Mr. William Byrne, a newspaper journalist the exception and his role in the final chapter wanting. Nevertheless, Emma Donoghue has penned a riveting tale and The Wonder a good read.