For a few months, I kept eyeing Emma Donoghue‘s novel The Wonder every time I went to a book store, and I finally bought it a couple weeks ago. I couldn’t wait any longer, so I decided to start reading it this week. Luckily, a business trip gave me plenty of time to read during the train ride down to Portland, and without my husband and cat around, I read a lot each evening, too. Abundant reading time and a quick, engrossing story made this book fly by in just a couple of days, and what a great escape from reality it was!
The Wonder takes us to a small village in the Irish Midlands in 1859. Lib Wright, an English nurse trained by Florence Nightingale, has been summoned to resolve a strange case: An 11-year-old girl named Anna O’Donnell is said to have eaten nothing in four months. It’s a baffling scenario, and Lib’s job is to uncover the truth. Is Anna a true miracle, or is it all a hoax?
An educated woman, Lib is highly skeptical of it all. Her job is to stay with Anna in her room and observe. If Anna is in fact eating, Lib will find out. But a case she expected to solve in just days ends up transforming how Lib sees things. Maybe Anna is a true living wonder? Or maybe something more sinister is taking place?
Anna’s parents are unusual, and the village’s doctor and community can’t always be trusted. As the truth comes to light, Lib will have to risk it all to save a life.
From the very fist pages, The Wonder draws readers into its chilling, misty atmosphere. You can feel the crisp dawn air, feel the dank gloom of a run-down home. The setting is almost a character itself. The isolation of a small, old village adds so much unease, and it really sets the stage for an eerie and strange story.
Much of how it’s set up makes you anticipate a bit of magic. I found myself thinking of dark fairies and witchcraft early on, but soon enough you get the sense that this isn’t benevolent, and it isn’t borne of magic at all. Instead, something more dangerous is at work here.
Lib’s critical perspective, in some ways, works against your own better judgment. As she dismisses evidence and expects certain conclusions, the reader tries harder to prove her wrong and find the magic in this story. But as the pages go by, you start to feel a new kind of disbelief. Anna’s legs seem to be swelling, and she doesn’t look healthy at all. If anything, she looks closer to death than anything else. Is she sick? What could be causing this?
A huge impediment here is religion. Anna, her family, the whole village are all devoutly religious, and it seems to move past comfort into an area of danger. We’ve all seen how religion can lead to war and hate crimes. But in The Wonder, we get an idea of how religion can actually harm a child, despite her loving family and community.
The story moved in unexpected directions, and the ending was stunning and powerful. A little bit of romance creeps in, but it ultimately helps to rescue a life and present a fresh start.
This is the first book I’v read from Emma Donoghue, and I loved it! The Wonder starts off quiet and eerily tranquil, but it slowly takes grip and pulls you forward, disbelief transforming into horror. The writing is sparse and precise, the imagery vivid, the story nuanced and surprising. It was a wonderful and swift read, and The Wonder is a book I’ll be recommending to everyone. I expect it will stay with me for a long time.