Much like her award winning book, "The Room," Emma Donoghue's latest book, "The Wonder" is a psychological novel based on a true event from the past. Both books are filled with the same sense of dread, and concern some form of abuse of a child who may not realize she or he is being manipulated in a controlled environment. Both books move at the same day to day pace, over the span of a few weeks, where daily life is examined minutely.
In "The Wonder," a young girl has stopped eating after her 11th birthday. Anna O'Donnell, we are told, has not eaten in four months. In the rural Irish Midlands where the O'Donnells live in a pocket handkerchief sized village, people have begun arriving on pilgrimage to see the miracle child who has survived without sustenance. Many of these visitors are ready to canonize Anna, which is fine with some of the local lights, for it brings money into the town coffers. As for Anna's parents, there is a convenient basket by the door where donations can be made. We are told it has been 7 years since the great potato famine, and many people are still wan and near starvation. The reader suspects that this is a case of anorexia or at best a hoax. There are others in the town who believe so also, so an all-male committee has been formed to test Anna by hiring watchers to stay by her side for two weeks. The author in her end notes tells us that between the 16th and 20th century there were a number of recorded cases of what were called "Fasting Girls" and that often watchers were brought in to test the endurance of these young women.
Elizabeth (Lib) Wright, a highly competent English nurse who served in the Crimea with Florence Nightingale arrives in this outpost to be a watcher along with the inscrutable Sister Michael. These two women are to sit by Anna 24/7 to make sure that nothing passes her lips. Lib Wright is sure it is a hoax and she arrives with a set of prejudices and judgements of the Irish that were usual among the English. Before long she develops a strong bond with Anna, and with horror she begins to realize that by being a watcher, she is contributing to Anna's deterioration as the girl begins to waste away. The mastery is how did Anna get enough food to look healthy before the watchers arrived and what are the secrets Anna is hiding. Lib herself is keeping a secret that we find out about at the end of the book when she confides in a young reporter from Dublin who becomes romantically tied to her. Lib's fight to liberate Anna is the heart of the book.
Donoghue uses few characters, as in her other books, but these characters are fully drawn and realistic. The story is intriguing and as one nears the last third of the book, it is almost impossible to put down. Donoghue is a masterful writer and a wonderful story teller. If you enjoyed "The Room," you are sure to appreciate this book as well. It is not an easy read emotionally to see a young child starving herself in the name of religion. It is a study of the damage fanatical religious beliefs can cause among the innocent and the ignorant. I highly recommend this book.