‘The Wonder’ by Emma Donoghue
There are many reasons to second-guess yourself when finishing a book you expected to like but didn’t. Perhaps you’re worried the class you’re taking on William Faulkner has dulled your taste buds to well-prepared sentences that move forward chronologically. Maybe you’re guilty of pigeonholing an author by expecting them to rewrite a version of the novel that made them successful ad infinitum (see: Jonathan Safran Foer). It could even be that the book, in this case Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder, has just been longlisted for the Giller Prize—meaning you feel ‘meh’ about something a jury of very smart people have deemed worthy of $100,000. Or you might be surprised to find that you’re not second-guessing yourself at all.
I’m used to feeling surprised by Donoghue. Like many readers, I was first introduced to her through the monumental success of Room (2010), a novel that’s startling for many reasons, not least of which is the author’s ability to successfully sustain an entire narrative voiced by a five-year-old boy. It’s no easy feat, especially since Donoghue is the anti-Safran Foer—she’s incredibly prolific and varied in style and subject matter. Donoghue published six novels before Room (not counting several short story collections, stage and radio dramas and books on literary history) and none of them feel like auditions for the book that would one day make her famous. It’s disappointing that an author with a special knack for voice would instead give readers the plain prose and lack of strong character development found in The Wonder.
The Wonder is set in a small community in Ireland the 1850s, where Lib, an English nurse trained by Florence Nightingale, is called in to keep watch over a child who hasn’t eaten since her eleventh birthday—four months ago. At least that’s what sweet and excessively religious Anna O’Donnell claims, with the enthusiastic backing of her parents, the townsfolk and even the local physician. Everyone seems more than willing to believe that they’re in the presence of a miracle and not a hoax, or worse, a little girl starving herself to death. Everyone except for our no-nonsense English heroine, that is.
What makes Lib a good nurse, her infamous mentor Miss N. tells her, is that she is “free of ties,” but that’s exactly what makes her a thin and unconvincing character. Even Lib’s one obvious tie—her association with Florence Nightingale, which from synopsis onward the novel never lets us forget—feels like an unused opportunity. Instead of being limited to providing historical specificity and credibility to Lib’s past, tying in aspects of Nightingale’s mythos could have heightened key points of tension in the novel. That Nightingale’s achievements may have been exaggerated during the Crimean war to satiate the public’s need for a hero, for example, sheds light on the potential motivations of a community traumatized by hunger (with the Great Famine having just racked Ireland in the mid 1840s) as it attempts to martyr a young girl.
To be fair, Lib’s aloof inaccessibility is intentional. But while Anna O’Donnell can’t get the nurse to divulge her nickname until late in the book, we always know Lib as Lib. The limited-omniscient perspective allows readers to get more intimate with how Lib’s mind works, but her thoughts are often heavy-handed. For example, Lib reminds herself a dozen times within the first fifty pages of the novel that she isn’t “here to be kind”: “she reminded herself, she wasn’t here to improve the girl’s health, only study it”; “she reminded herself… the girl was nothing but a shammer”; “[she] reminded herself that it was nothing to her whether the little fraud drank [water] or not”; and so it goes until, not shockingly, Lib softens toward her young ward. The reader’s tendency to understand and recognize Lib’s feelings and intentions long before she does totally kills the pacing of a narrative framed as a psychological thriller.
As for the unfolding of events, the plot is very end-heavy, so much happens in the third act. Enter William Byrne, a charismatic, handsome and cultured journalist from Dublin who is attracted to Lib for reasons unknown, in what makes for the most forced love story I’ve read in years. As for Lib, she considers Ireland a “primitive backwater,” and sees the Irish people as “[s]hiftless, thriftless, hopeless, hapless… Their tracks going nowhere, their trees hung with putrid rags.” She goes so far as to wonder if the Irish are prone to hairiness, recalling English cartoons depicting them as “apish pygmies”—suffice to say her love interest in a romanticized, scrubbed Irish gentleman-hero is not enough to redeem, resolve or even complicate Lib’s internalized prejudices.
On the other hand, one of the novel’s most compelling themes is developed (albeit belatedly) toward the end of the novel: gender. It’s interesting to note that Donoghue’s inspiration for The Wonder came from nearly fifty accounts of so-called Fasting Girls who, between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries, claimed to survive without food for long periods of time. Some cases were debunked, others never were. Without giving anything away, the gendered nature of these accounts is fascinating, and any peripheral whiff of sexism in the novel becomes focused and disturbingly charged as the mystery surrounding Anna plays itself out. I just wish this particular tension could have crept in earlier.
Perhaps Lib’s perspective is so limited because The Wonder is ultimately a novel about Irishness—hunger, religion, superstition, dark family secrets, girlhood. Written by an Irish author with a gift for voice, it seems natural, then, to expect language and dialogue to add texture and nimbleness to the narrative. One need not apply the wildly colourful parroting of regional accents and dialects a-la-Kevin Barry, either—a novel can be written with “a spare and propulsive tension,” as The Wonder’s dust jacket claims, without leaving readers with an empty stomach.
HarperCollins | 304 pages | cloth | $32.99 | ISBN: 9780316393874