The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

The Wonder Emma Donoghue‘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.

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16 Comments

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16 responses to “The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

  1. I read Room a few years ago and Emma Donoghue had fallen out of my radar. This book sounds very original. I enjoy historical fiction and I’m putting it on my list!

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  2. I absolutely adored Room, so I’ll try this one. It sounds like a beautiful portrayal of mental illness; I hope it doesn’t fall in with some other novels that attempt a character with anorexia, and end up making mental illness look romantic.

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  3. Is the mystery of her survival “without” good explained believably, in the end?

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  4. Food. Sorry, stupid autocorrect on my phone. 🙄

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  5. Wiliam Byrne’s part in the book did seem convenient, didn’t it? I also wasn’t completely taken with the ending. But I did enjoy the book overall and think it will do well. I loved the historical aspects of it!

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  6. I have a copy of this in my TBR stack but decided to postpone reading it because I recently finished Hannah Kent’s rather lack lustre The Good People – it’s set in a similar time and place and the themes are also similar (imagine, two best-selling authors releasing such similar books st the same time – what are the chances?!). I’ll wait until the details of Good a People have faded and the read Wonder.

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    • I knew Hannah Kent had a new book out but didn’t realise it was so similar to The Wonder in terms of setting and themes. I really enjoyed The Wonder so I hope you do get round to it at some point but can understand why it isn’t at the top of your TBR pile right now.

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  7. You wrote a wonderful review. The book sounds interesting as well. I’ve read room but was disturbed for so long afterwards that I don’t know if I want to read anything ever again by the same author.

    I’m afraid I’ll find her watermark underneath this story as well.

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  8. I loved Room too. This sounds like a good book. I’ve added it to my list.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: My Books of the Year 2016 | A Little Blog of Books

  10. Pingback: The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017: Longlist Predictions | A Little Blog of Books

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