The Wonder, vivid and fascinating historical fiction told in five parts, is Emma Donoghue’s latest offering. English nurse Lib Wright, who trained under Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, is hired by a small Irish town council for a two-week period to observe Anna O’Donnell, a child who miraculously hasn’t eaten since her 11th birthday four months ago.
Lib arrives in Ireland driven to unmask the hoax, to make sense out of nonsense. Anna is a little girl of religious disposition and unearthly self-possession whose eerie denial of food makes Lib question everything she knows. Lib is caught between her duty as a nurse and her duty to remain an objective observer, haunted by the possibility that the observation could have “the perverse effect of turning the O’Donnells’ lie to truth.” We feel a creeping sense of horror and dread and ask ourselves the same questions as Lib – what is really going on? Is the miracle real, or are the watchers now responsible for Anna’s decline, if indeed there is one? And should we as readers change our expectations about the genre of book we are reading?
Lib evokes our empathy as someone who doesn’t fit into the places she finds herself. She is chosen specifically because she is an outsider, an educated female and Anglican in Roman Catholic rural Ireland. Although she has had as much freedom as a woman in Victorian England might reasonably expect to have, she is still subject to everyday indignities and longs to have a less narrow life. Lib is somewhat rigid and protective of her sense of dignity when saving a life often involves the minutia of nursing such as latrine duty and cleanliness.
The book illuminates some of the conflicts between superstition and science, and the power of zealotry and true belief to create a reality. Lib, a non-believer, strikes up a relationship with William Byrne, a city reporter and ethical man of faith who also makes her question her role in the watch. Lib chafes at how no woman would be allowed to be as well trained as Dr. Standish, a minor character and distinguished Dublin doctor, clearly lacking in sympathy and never torn between the promptings of the heart and the dictates of scientific observation. Other characters prove to be firmly on the side of flesh or spirit, while Lib wonders why one has to choose between flesh and spirit at all.
Ms. Donoghue is a master at ratcheting up the tension as we feel Lib’s horrible and oppressive helplessness of being clear-eyed and sane in a madhouse. The Wonder is a memorable and darkly beautiful book, one of the best I’ve read all year.