I loved Donoghue’s last novel, ROOM, but wasn’t sure I’d like this as much because its setting is historical – 19th century Ireland to be precise. In fact it’s almost as good and her story telling abilities drew me in from the offset.
The plot is quite simple: Lib, a Nightingale nurse trained in the Crimea, is contracted to watch over eleven year old, Anna, who appears to have survived 4 months of self imposed fasting with no ill effects. The local community think Anna is a holy miracle in their midst, and a committee made up of the local priest, doctor, publican and baronet want independent verification that all is as it seems, not least so they might fully benefit from her potential as a religious tourist attraction. Lib is joined in her task by a local nun and the pair take turns to watch over Anna, monitor her condition and observe whether she is indeed faith personified or in fact a fraud.
Lib is convinced Anna is getting food from somewhere and that she will find her out immediately. So when her thorough searches of the family’s most basic of homes reveals no evidence the girl is eg sneaking into the kitchen at night, she turns her attention elsewhere and variously suspects the doctor, the priest, her nursing colleague the nun and both parents. Hitting related brick walls it’s only as Anna’s condition deteriorates rapidly severely, that Lib is forced to change tack. In doing so she confronts the difficult truth that it is her own presence making Anna sick – that the very act of being observed has changed the subject of the investigation. Buoyed by the words of a passionate journalist she meets at her lodgings, and her growing attachment to the young girl, Lib determines that the matter of miracles must take a backseat to persuading Anna to eat to stay alive. To do that she must better understand why Anna stopped in the first place and that discovery makes Lib wonder whether the girl will ever be safe.
One of the most striking things about WONDER is Lib’s scorn for Ireland and everyone she meets there. She rails at the poverty, ignorance, superstitions and religious fervour. And her fury at the damp and the peat smoke that permeate everything is palpable. Lib stands for progress, for science, yet this is sorely tested as the story unfolds, and she finds herself having to draw on aspects of the very same faith and folklore she despises in order to save Anna from the inevitable consequences of starvation.
The other most striking thing is the same sense of claustrophobia and oppression that marked out ROOM. But Lib isn’t really in a contained physical space – just one of her own making – and one of the downsides of this novel is that she has the freedom to act sooner and more actively challenge what is so obviously going on, so her refusal to do so is both frustrating and calls her moral superiority into question. We know her reaction to Anna is complicated by a backstory that contains loss and grief, but that doesn’t quite excuse her failure to see what’s staring her in the face, or the way her assumptions about Ireland lead her to wrongly assume all sorts of things about the situation in which she finds herself. Donoghue has given as a flawed protagonist and that’s OK, but she’s also given us one who doesn’t quite measure up to her own self or experiences and that’s less forgivable. Nonetheless, this is a good book, with strong, interesting characters and a compelling narrative – definitely worth the read.