Sunday 26 August 2018

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Wonder, Emma Donoghue (2016)

Many will know Irish-Canadian novelist Emma Donoghue from her much-lauded Room (2010)—the contemporary tale of a woman trapped by a predator and bringing up her son in captivity. But Donoghue’s works when viewed as an oeuvre otherwise have a decidedly historical bent. There’s Slammerkin (2000), inspired by an eighteenth-century murder, The Sealed Letter (2008), the story of an 1864 divorce case and Frog Music (2014), the tale of a nineteenth-century cross-dressing frog catcher. And then there’s her 2016 The Wonder, which I’m writing about today—a novel set in the 1850s that pits the English rationality of a nurse trained under Florence Nightingale against a village of superstitious Irish peasants, convinced they have a miracle in their midst.

The Wonder (2016)

Eleven-year-old Anna O’Donnell hasn’t eaten in months, or so her parents claim. Is God sustaining the child with manna? Or is this a hoax, a medical oddity, something more sinister? Lib Wright, our protagonist, is determined to be vigilant and to get to the bottom of the mystery, but she doesn’t expect to grow fond of her devout and unworldly patient, or that she will have to confront her past—the secrets she is hiding of her own.

Donoghue’s cast of characters is small and her setting a tiny village, with one store-cum-drinking place, surrounded by bog. I was unsure how the simple premise would play out over the length of a novel but she’s masterful at building tension and at suggesting the monotony and repetitions of a nurse’s ‘watch’ or ‘vigil’, while keeping readers turning the pages.

Emma Donoghue (1969-)

The Ireland of the mid-nineteenth century leaps off the page, but, most unsettling, it’s not unthinkable to imagine a similar story unfolding in the country’s rural communities today. There’s much that’s recognisable—the pervasiveness of religion, which mingles with folklore and myth, the hostility towards outsiders, the culture of secrecy, suffering and martyrdom.

Much as I enjoyed the novel, there were two slight disappointments. First, the love interest character—a journalist—is under-developed, convenient for plotting purposes but lacking the nuance of Lib, Anna and others. Second, nothing really forces Lib to reassess her prejudices about the zealots she’s surrounded by. It wasn’t that I was hoping for a supernatural explanation but I would have liked a moment of self-revelation, where Lib rethought some of her assumptions.

Overall The Wonder is a quiet sort of historical novel, with drama and action saved for the final pages. It’s a novel about caregivers and patients, cynics and believers, and, more than anything, our complex relationship with food, our bodies, appetite. Donoghue has a gift for uncovering tales from the past, which have resonance today.

Which twenty-first century novel, set in the nineteenth, would you like the Secret Victorianist to review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Wednesday 15 August 2018

Quiz: Which Bronte sibling are you?

Thursday 9 August 2018

Neo-Victorian Voices: Lincoln in the Bardo, George Sanders (2017)

One of the most lauded historical novels of the last 5 years, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Man Booker winning Lincoln in the Bardo. I’d heard the word ‘experimental’ and so anticipated something clever and well-researched, replete with facts, footnotes and intertextual references.

Instead Lincoln in the Bardo was one of the most powerful fictionalisations of grief I’ve encountered—private grief for a dead child and public grief for a country at war with itself. This is a novel that defies the conventions of the form. We are used to entering the mind and world of one protagonist or at least one character at a time, but here we are treated to a cacophony of voices—some real, others imagined, some ‘living’, others dead.

The central story concerns Abraham Lincoln and his struggle to come to terms with his son Willie’s death in 1862, but the novel soon becomes a tapestry of other stories—of a man who died before consummating his marriage to a younger wife, of a couple who were killed while intoxicated, trampled by a horse and carriage, of the black inhabitants of the cemetery’s mass grave.

George Saunders (1958-)
In the opening pages the novel reads like a play. I flicked to find out which character each block of text was attributed to, trusting that my investment would pay off. And it did. Soon I could identify many of the speakers from dialogue cues alone and could follow the logic as the ghosts interrupted each other. Saunders’s imaginative approach to the afterlife, his mixture of the uncanny and the familiar, is unique in itself, as he paints a world we come to understand more than the souls who haunt and describe it.

Perhaps because of this, the scenes in the cemetery were more effective for me than the other narratives—letters, snatches of memoir, history books. And the macro story—of war and of America’s political climate—less compelling that the human drama of filial death and parental despair. But overall Lincoln in the Bardo is a triumph.

In her Reith Lectures, Hilary Mantel said that when embarking historical fiction, writers must ask themselves one question: “Can these bones live?” Saunders brings historical characters to life from beyond the grave in a way we’ve never seen before.

Which novel would you like to see the Secret Victorianist review next as part of the Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.