Emma Donoghue is best known for her 2010 novel Room. Ostensibly, The Wonder is radically different. Set in 19th century Ireland, it deals with the phenomenon of fasting girls, who claimed to exist for long periods of time without food. In this novel, Lib, a worldly nurse trained by Florence Nightingale and fresh from the Crimean War, is sent to the Irish countryside to watch over 11-year-old Anna. Anna, it is claimed, has not consumed any food whatsoever in four months. The child herself claims that she is existing solely on manna from Heaven.
As The Wonder unfolds, its similarities to Room become more apparent. Like the latter, its action largely takes place within confined spaces, with the claustrophobic atmosphere being skillfully rendered and creating increasing tension. And at the heart of both novels is the bond between an adult and a child and the lengths to which adults will go to protect the children in their care. Both of these elements ensure that, for spells at least, The Wonder is an absorbing and immersive read.
Donoghue’s prose is beautifully simple and uncluttered. One of her greatest skills is bringing fresh insight into something as mundane as mealtimes:
How could the child bear not just the hunger, but the boredom? The rest of humankind used meals to divide the day, Lib realized – as reward, as entertainment, the chiming of an inner clock. For Anna, during the watch, each day had to pass like one endless moment.
For me, the most illuminating theme Donoghue considers is that of knowledge. Reading the novel, I realised I had, at times, been guilty of accepting the stereotype of the ‘ignorant person from the olden days.’ They weren’t clever like us, we are often led to believe. But in Lib we see an intelligent woman who is limited by the contemporary state of knowledge and the rate of scientific discovery. Knowledge and ignorance are often about context, Donoghue seems to point out, not just intellect:
‘Put out your tongue, please.’ By training Lib always noted the condition of the tongue, though she’d have been hard-pressed to tell what it said about the subject’s health.
The Wonder also makes much of the tension between supposedly rational England (represented by Lib) and superstitious, Catholic Ireland (represented by, amongst others, Anna’s parents who, in Lib’s eyes, are allowing their daughter to die):
Released from her pain meant she’d died, Lib realized. Only in Ireland would this count as a happy ending.
Unlike with the consideration of knowledge and human understanding, I felt that The Wonder was retreading well-worn ground here, though. Moreover, Donoghue doesn’t seem to do much other than reaffirm stereotypes in this regard. Lib’s knowledge is constrained not by her intelligence but by the world around her. The Irish peasants don’t seem to be similarly excused, however, which seems a little bit cliched.
Another weak point is the ending, which succumbs to Hollywood-esque daftness. The eventual explantion of Anna’s survival serves only to conveniently tie up loose ends rather than to add further consideration to the novel’s underlying themes.
Overall, then, The Wonder is often atmospheric, occasionally gripping and reflects upon some intriguing themes. Ultimately, though, it is rather insubstantial.