RAD Book Club review: The Wonder

17 Jan 2018

RAD Book Club met last Tuesday to discuss The Wonder, a novel by Canada-based Irish novelist Emma Donoghue.

Inspired by numerous cases of ‘fasting girls’ in Europe and North America in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries, Emma Donoghue introduces us to the ‘wonder’-a girl said to be existing without food in the Irish Midlands in the 1850s, some years after the famine.

Lib is an English nurse, proud to have served under Florence Nightingale in the Crimea. The principles extracted from Nightingale’s ‘Notes on nursing’ rigorously inform her attitude towards nursing and her professional conduct. She is hired by a village committee in a tiny village with the peculiar task of keeping watch on Anna O’Donnell, an eleven-year-old girl who hasn’t eaten in several months, in order to prove whether this is a miracle or a scam. Lib takes turns invigilating the girl with a local nun who, in addition to poverty, chastity and obedience, has also taken a vow of service. Together they need to find out how is the girl being kept alive and who, if anyone, is feeding her.

With her no-nonsense attitude, Lib arrives convinced that she will uncover the deceit. The community, on the other hand, have a vested interest in the outcome; the local doctor, despite the contradictory nature of the event, seems to be convinced that the girl in fact survives on nothing. The parents and the priest reinforce the miraculous nature of the fasting, which for them is inspired by the power and conviction of the girl’s prayers. The news of the prodigious girl has spread and many religious pilgrims are welcome into the house for a visit which brings revenue to the household and the parish.

There were no strong feelings either way about this novel, no-one had anything that they particularly loved or hated about it. Whilst reading we all felt the suspense of whether Anna was really surviving without sustenance and, if she was not, wanted to find out how was she was being fed. For some of us, though, that was the only motivation to keep reading. We found that the plot raised interesting dilemmas although was a bit slow for a few of us, who found it quite tiring, even draining, at times and we wondered whether this was a deliberate ploy on Donoghue’s part. Conversely, all agreed that the conclusion was too speedily ‘wrapped up’ and seemed out of keeping with what had gone before. We concluded that rather than being a ‘thriller’ as it has been described the novel is more of a psychodrama.

So much of our discussion centred on questioning the likelihood and plausibility of some of the characters thoughts or actions, in particular the impracticalities of the ending, that we realised was also a barrier to our understanding the character’s motivations and our enjoyment of the book. As for characterisation, Lib was almost the only voice found in the book. We realised that her cynical and patronising attitude towards the locals and religious faith were a narrative technique to emphasise the characteristics of the place but some of us found that this made her too difficult to find sympathy with and a few realised early on that she was holding something back from us. This led us, as a group, to wonder how far her personal narrative may have been coloured by her past experience, and to what extent it was therefore reliable.

We thought that the themes presented in the book were quite modern and pertinent. Discussion centred on cultural differences such as the clash of science and faith, which we picked up on as representing the tensions between England and Ireland at the time the novel was set. We saw how the characters embodied these polar opposites, which for us were the most thought-provoking elements in the novel. Nonetheless we also remarked upon the similarities between Anna’s faith in God and the Bible and Lib’s total belief in her mentor, Nightingale’s, Notes on Nursing.