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Review: The Wonder, by Emma Donaghue
Little, Brown, 2016. 320 pp. $16

It’s summer 1859, and Elizabeth (Lib) Wright, a nurse who worked under Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, arrives at an impoverished Irish village tasked with observing a medical phenomenon. An eleven-year-old girl, Anna O’Donnell, has reportedly taken no food for four months.

A committee that includes the local physician has hired Lib and another nurse to watch the girl, day and night, to be absolutely certain that no one’s feeding her in secret. It is generally assumed, even by the good doctor, that they’re witnessing a miracle. Why, young Anna, who claims to exist on manna from heaven, might even be a modern-day saint! Wouldn’t that put the village on the map? And so it would seem, for pilgrims are already beating a path to the O’Donnells’ door and leaving donations—strictly for charity, it’s said.

But Lib, an atheist who believes in what she can observe, thinks she’s observing a hoax, one perhaps encouraged by the local priest. Or maybe the girl herself has taken odd notions into her head. Either way, however, the committee has ordered the nurses to play sentinel but derive no inferences from what they see, a remit that grates on Lib. And as she comes to know Anna a little, she believes the girl is following her faith, yet fears for her and wishes she could learn what’s driving her exactly, or the adults who might be pushing her.

I like this premise, and how Donoghue uses it to plumb Irish folkways, religious beliefs, and moral standards as well as English disdain and misunderstanding. The O’Donnells represent an archaic, dying Ireland, amid still-fresh evidence of the Great Famine of 1845-49, while Lib stands in for the English modernists who would take a carbolic-soaked sponge to the island and scrub out superstition, if only they could.

James Mahoney’s drawing for the Illustrated London News, February 1847, of two starving Irish children near Skibbereen, west Cork (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Unlike her countrymen and -women who twiddled their thumbs while Ireland starved, Lib refuses to let Anna do the same. You have to admire the layers here, of historical resonance, cultural clash, and the personal stakes of a child at risk. Further, as befits her protagonist, Donoghue’s storytelling voice is spare and direct, and she turns small moments into large instances of “no — and furthermore.”

Yet The Wonder almost founders halfway through, I think because of an authorial decision made all too often these days: to imbue a protagonist with such strident singularity, setting up the greatest obstacles possible. I don’t mean to single out Donoghue; she really is a fine writer. But this novel typifies the narrative risks in manipulating the reader’s perceptions to serve a story.

By giving Lib every conceivable English prejudice against the Irish, the novel skews against her. “What a rabble, the Irish,” she thinks. “Shiftless, thriftless, hopeless, helpless, always brooding over past wrongs.” Having studied the Great Famine and written about it, I recognize that many English people held these views around that time, which contributed greatly to the catastrophe. But by withholding key facts about Lib’s past, therefore failing to develop her inner life, Donoghue lets her protagonist remain shallow and keeps me at a distance. Portraying her in broad, overdetermined strokes may or may not give her a steeper mountain to climb, but at a price—halfway through, I almost gave up reading.

Once you learn Lib’s secrets, though, she wins you over, so completely that I feel manipulated and have to wonder whether the secrets have been withheld because of their shock value. If so, why write character-driven fiction, which this is, and allow your plot to shackle the protagonist to a false impression? The shock doesn’t even accomplish much.

Also, Lib’s an odd mix of sophistication and ignorance. The narrative never says why she’s an atheist or how she came to that, but has she really never heard the phrase manna from heaven? At first, I figured that Donoghue (or her editors) feared that some readers might not have heard of the Exodus story—odd, but you never know. However, how Lib learns about the manna, told at length, suggests otherwise.

She also has to have the Great Famine explained to her. Apparently, during the famine years, her own concerns absorbed her so much that she didn’t even read a newspaper. But the blight that killed Ireland’s potatoes destroyed those in England and on the Continent as well; those losses, and a succession of failed grain harvests, gave the era a singular nickname, the Hungry Forties. Rife with revolution, hardship, famine, and protest, the decade’s upheavals were absolutely deafening. If Lib slept through that, I wonder how she didn’t sleep through the Crimean War.

Consequently, for a long stretch, she comes across as a straw protagonist, made of intentionally weak stuff. That causes unfortunate ripples, because, by the time she brings her inner resources to bear, the narrative has to rush through a couple crucial emotional transitions, less plausible for that, and which muddle an otherwise satisfying ending.

The Wonder has an original premise and perspective, and I had hoped to find more artistry in its execution.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.