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 the 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.