One of the books selected by my book club for this month was The Wonder by Emma Donoghue. This is the first of her books I have read although I have Room on my ever growing TBR. I was drawn to The Wonder having been intrigued by the premise and its historical setting so was looking forward to reading it.
The events in this novel take place in a village in Ireland in which a young English nurse, Lib Wright has been called upon to assist with an unusual matter. She is employed for a fortnight by the O’Donnell family in a private capacity – a wage, along with travel and lodgings are provided so Lib takes the opportunity, although she has no idea of how life changing her assignment will be. She learns that Anna O’Donnell, an eleven year old girl, has eaten nothing in the months that have followed her eleventh birthday. Despite her family being adamant she has consumed nothing, their daughter seems to be thriving. The whole matter has caused a stir in the village community, with people considering Anna to be a wonder, a miracle. But how can a girl survive without food? What is it that is keeping her alive? Lib’s job, with the assistance of a nun with whom she alternates shifts, is to observe Anna for a period of two weeks in order to get to the bottom of the mystery…
Alongside Lib I found myself drawn into Anna’s story and eager to find answers. Various questions and potential explanations are raised throughout. Is Anna being fed in secret? Who is in on the scheme? Or is it something different, an act of God? It was interesting to see the reactions of the local people towards Anna and through her unusual situation we get to see the attitudes that were typical of the time such as the strength of religious belief and ritual and also that of folklore. And as a cynical Lib is keen to get to the bottom of it all we see her frustrations with those around her as her concern for Anna’s welfare begins to grow and she becomes fond of the girl. I would say the story is of a slower pace as the situation develops gradually but I found it to be a compulsive read. The mystery surrounding Anna’s fasting kept me gripped and I read on with interest to see what may be uncovered, and what the future held for this young girl. And whilst Lib fights for Anna, we also get a glimpse into her own past and the events that have shaped the woman she has become, the memories which linger in the mind. And as the story progresses there were secrets revealed along the way which help piece together the extraordinary events. Through Emma Donoghue’s beautiful writing, we get a glimpse into rural life in 19th century Ireland, and get a look into the home of an extraordinary girl and her family, and the events that grip the village.
I really enjoyed reading The Wonder and uncovering the mystery surrounding Anna O’Donnell. I was interested to see that this story was based upon the numerous cases of ‘Fasting Girls’ which took place around the world with various outcomes and explanations of their own. Emma Donoghue has written a gripping and atmospheric story of faith and family, superstition and corruption. And most importantly it is the story of a woman and her determination to find the truth, and the lengths she must go for the safety of a child.