by Elizabeth Spencer

I am not one of the millions of readers who made Room a bestseller. My only prior introduction to Emma Donoghue’s work was Astray, a charming collection of historical travel stories inspired by real events. The Wonder, Donoghue’s latest novel, is also historical and fact-based. Set in mid-nineteenth century Ireland, not long after the potato famine, The Wonder is a story of two heroines: Anna O’Donnell, an eleven-year-old who claims to subsist only on “manna from heaven,” and Lib, one of two nurses hired to watch Anna for a fortnight to determine if her claims are truthful.

Unlike the Irish nun who is Anna’s other nurse, Lib isn’t religious and doesn’t believe Anna’s story. She expects to catch the girl eating furtively before the first day ends. Presumably the reader will share Lib’s skepticism. (I did.) Thus the novel opens with the question of “how?” but its real momentum builds in pursuit of “why?”

As a writer, I was most impressed by Donoghue’s ability to take a spare setting and spin a mystery tale as riveting as The Da Vinci Code. This book is about waiting and watching, which could easily be as boring as it sounds. But Lib reminds us that “for an observant nurse…time need never be wasted. She noted a plain table, pushed against the windowless back wall. A painted dresser, the lower section barred, like a cage. Some tiny doors set into the walls; recessed cupboards? A curtain of old flour sacks nailed up. All rather primitive, but neat, at least; not quite squalid.” The same can be said for an observant writer, and Donoghue is such a novelist. No word or detail is wasted and tension brims in all of them.

Lib watches and waits, studying Anna’s room and the rest of the cottage for a food hiding place. She records Anna’s vital signs and looks for symptoms of physical decline. As Lib’s focus turns from how to why, she tries to find clues in the girl’s meager possessions – her holy cards and other religious icons. Suspense builds as the reader assumes Lib’s anxiety and growing bafflement. What is going on here? Can Lib stop it and save Anna?

In the background of Anna’s story there is Lib’s own history, another mystery slowly revealed over the course of the novel. She is a widow and a nurse trained by Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War. She lives alone in London, where she works at a hospital. In other words, Lib is a modern woman, ahead of her time. She pushes against the restraints of her period’s sexism and religious fervor: “Faith had never had much of a hold on her; over the years it had fallen away, with other childish things.” Dismissing religion as “childish” would have been a somewhat radical stance in the mid-nineteenth century. And as Lib tries to understand Anna’s motivations, she begins to see her as a victim of the passionate excesses of her Catholic faith.

Also an early feminist, Lib recognizes that she is wiser than Anna’s doctor but must be careful to appear submissive when offering her opinion of the case: “Calm was crucial; a strident female voice caused men’s ears to close.” Nonetheless, Dr. McBrearty dismisses Lib’s concern for Anna as “dormant maternal capacity” and warns that it will lead to “irrational panic and a touch of self-aggrandizement.” When a cosmopolitan doctor from Dublin arrives to examine Anna, he diagnoses her as “a half-starved hysteric,” a common female malady at the time. Women’s lack of voice or authority over their own stories also plays a role, revealed toward the end of the novel, in Anna’s decision to fast.

One cannot read this book without thinking of Anna’s modern counterpart: the anorexic. While their motivations vary, voluntary starvation continues to seduce girls and women of all ages. When did we decide that there was something noble in denying oneself an appetite, something virtuous about diminishment? The Wonder reminded me that female bodies have always had to endure the many functions society asks of them. As Donoghue puts it, “Anna’s body was a blank page that recorded everything that happened to it.” Chastity, beauty, pleasure, nurture – women must do so much more than simply stay alive and the public always feels entitled to judge their success. It’s not surprising, then, that the act of staying alive – eating – can get so complicated.  

However, you don’t have to turn this book into a Women’s Studies class to enjoy it. At its core The Wonder is a good, old-fashioned riveting story. Even the plot twists I did see coming, such as the burgeoning romance between Lib and the handsome young journalist who wants to write about Anna’s case, were no less satisfying than the more surprising narrative arcs. Donoghue is never lazy in her characterizations and the complexity she gives to the people she invents make us relate to and care for them. Read The Wonder to get lost in a story and to believe in second chances and the hope we find in other people.