‘The Wonder’ by Emma Donoghue tells the story of Lib Wright, a widowed English nurse who trained under Florence Nightingale during the Crimean war. She is sent to a rural village in Ireland to independently observe Anna O’Donnell, an eleven-year-old girl whose parents claim has not eaten any solid food for four months, subsisting purely on “manna from heaven” and a few teaspoons of water a day. While the community accepts this claim without questioning it and visitors travel from afar to witness the miracle, Lib is immediately sceptical and expects the medical surveillance to be over in a couple of days once the fraud has been exposed. She alternates her shifts with a local nun Sister Michael and considers every possible way food could have been secretly smuggled to Anna. However, as more time passes, Lib starts to doubt her own beliefs and realises that there is more to Anna’s case than meets the eye.
Donoghue will probably always be best known for the Man Booker Prize shortlisted Room but many of her previous books are historical novels and I particularly enjoyed The Sealed Letter. As a suspense mystery set in Ireland during the 1850s shortly after the potato famine, ‘The Wonder’ brings together the best of both of these worlds. Donoghue has created an evocative setting effortlessly incorporating a phenomenal amount of period detail while the atmosphere is every bit as claustrophobic as that of ‘Room’.
Based on the real-life stories of “fasting girls” between the 16th and 20th centuries, the slow-burning mystery centres on whether Anna and her family are telling the truth or scamming the whole village. There are clear divisions between the English and Irish customs and attitudes with Lib’s modern and secular ideas contrasting with many of those she meets in the village but there are also more nuanced explorations of other complex themes and ethical dilemmas surrounding the dividing lines between religion, superstition and medicine. As Anna’s health deteriorates, showing symptoms of what would be recognised today as anorexia, Lib fins out more about the family’s past and the pace picks up again as she eventually gets closer to the reasons why Anna has stopped eating.
‘The Wonder’ isn’t a perfect book – I was less convinced by the role of local journalist William Byrne as a romantic interest for Lib and there are a limited number of possibilities when it comes to solving the mystery itself of how Anna survives for that length of time. However, in spite of these small reservations, I really enjoyed ‘The Wonder’ which is one of the most gripping novels I have read this year. Already shortlisted for the Giller Prize in Canada, it could be a possible contender for the Wellcome Book Prize which will have a longlist of 12 books for the very first time due to be announced in January 2017.