Book Review by Frank O’Shea
THE WONDER. By Emma Donoghue. Picador. 291 pp. $29.99
Emma Donoghue’s book Room was a Booker finalist and is now a successful film, written and produced by her. It was loosely based on the notorious Fritzl case in Austria in which a woman was held in captivity for 24 years. Donoghue’s latest book is also inspired by real events from the past, what were known as ‘Fasting Girls’ who were supposed to be surviving without food for long periods, often to the profit of their families or their locality.
The book imagines one such girl, Anna O’Donnell, living in the boggy Irish midlands in the years after the Great Famine. A committee of locals, headed by the doctor and the big landowner hire two nurses to stay with Anna for two weeks to monitor her fasting and to report any intake of food. One of those hired is a local Mercy nun, the other is an English nurse named Lib Wright, who has been trained by Florence Nightingale and survived the slaughter of the Crimean War.
That the action takes place in 1850s Ireland means that there is a great deal of ignorance, masquerading as superstition and witless piety. This coexists with much goodwill and solemn honesty; the local priest Mr Thaddeus – Catholic priests were not yet being called Father – has grave reservations about the fasting girl and tries to get her to stop. Into this environment comes Lib Wright, determined to show up the whole thing as a profitable hoax.
The book is an examination of duty and the way that different people see responsibility. Which has priority: employer, church, family, science? Or does the welfare of the patient, the child in this case, have precedence over all of those? It is easy to answer that question today, but the author carefully shows that it was not always so clearcut. Where there are ample opportunities to turn the story into a church-bashing exercise, she is careful to spread her blame and to show that the problem often arose because people loved the child and were acting out of the best of motives.
One of the secondary characters in the narrative is an Irish Times journalist named William Byrne, sent from Dublin to report the story. He is determined to portray the events as conspiracy. Not surprisingly, he and Lib form an uneasy and thorny alliance.
D’you know, I’ve never met a woman – a person – quite as blasphemous as you,
he tells her at one stage.
Although the solution to how Anna is managing to survive without food is not entirely credible, the why of her behaviour hits like a hammer blow, opening again the question of a conflict between love, duty and justice.
Donoghue rarely uses flowery prose and the story is carried mainly in dialogue, but the tension never relaxes and the final resolution of the situation is believable. She draws the reader into the world of post-Famine Ireland, of a people still surprised by their own survival, wanting to believe in a higher goodness.
But the enduring image is the change in the English nurse, her slow transformation from disdainful sceptic to a woman who finds love in the most unlikely places. An unforgettable character in an outstanding book. I don’t expect to read much better for a long time.
Frank O’Shea is a regular contributor to Tinteán and a member of the Tinteán Editorial Team