Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on The Wonder.
In Donoghue's intense exploration of religious faith, London nurse Lib Wright arrives in the Irish Midlands, fresh from the Crimean Campaign where she worked with the famous Florence Nightingale. Lib has attributes endemic to independent Victorian women. She’s a stock creature, a nurse with a heart of gold, a proto-feminist who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Possessed with a healthy suspicion of Catholicism, Lib
resents having been dragged to the provincial village of Athlone, where whiskery-cheeked Dr. McBrearty tells her that her services are needed for no less than a fortnight.
Lib’s duty will be to observe Anna O’Donnell who is not exactly ill but
who claims--or rather her parents claim--to have not taken any food since her eleventh birthday. Anna is not ill not with any known disease; she simply doesn’t eat. For four months, Anna hasn’t taken any sustenance of any kind except clear water,
yet a vital force seems to burn strong in Anna, and she seems to be in full
possession of her faculties. While a number of fervent letters from local parishioners proclaim Anna’s case to be an “out and out miracle,” Lib is convinced the girl is a fraud and
that her parents, Rosaleen and Malachy O’Donnell, are nothing more than cheats conspiring to feed their daughter secretly while making fools of world.
A committee is formed and a decision taken to mount the watch. Liv will be one of two scrupulous attendants who will stay by Anna night and day. The committee hopes that by importing one of the scrupulous new breed of nurses, credence will be given to the O’Donnell’s mad story. Together with elderly, rheumy-eyed Sister Michael, Lib establishes herself as a nursemaid cum jailer, convinced that “the squire and his lady” just want to keep their daughter at home so they can carry on slipping food to her. Lib is convinced that it will only take two weeks of supervision to catch them out.
Anna emerges here as the living marvel, the frail, mercurial, suffering child the author intends her to be. Lib is anxious to accept the Committee’s challenge to expose this “pitiful swindle.” Ensconced in the O’Donnell’s ramshackle cabin, Sister Michael offers to take the first watch. Anna’s bedroom
is an unadorned square inside which this tiny redheaded girl fades away before Liv and Sister Michael’s eyes. Liv
takes notes, recording Anna’s physical condition so that she can to impose something of the systematic on this incongruous situation. Yet for all the girl’s obvious suffering, Lib still has reason to believe the girl was getting plenty to eat on the sly.
Lib watches in horror as Rosaleen and Malachy take money from the hordes who turn up every day to grovel at the child’s feet.
She’s appalled at the notion that Rosaleen, the genius behind the plot, is convinced that her daughter’s refusal to eat is some sort of divine intervention. Lib refuses to be swayed, certain that the fast is a hoax of some sort and that Anna is somehow getting all the nourishment a growing girl needs. By day, Lib returns to her room above the “spirit grocery,” where she dreams of men calling for tobacco, underfed and unwashed, their hair crawling, ruined limbs. By night she’s obsessed with Anna’s condition.
Charming in her unworldly ways, Lib grudgingly finds it hard to accept that Anna is a trickster, “a great liar in a country famous for them.”
Donoghue writes a tale of stark similarities, balancing the mystery behind Anna’s obsession or mania or sickness (“she was like nothing so much as a little girl who didn’t need to eat,”) with Lib as she descends into
a symbolic swampy wilderness, constantly stumbling after a lost and lonely child. Perhaps there are other conspirators, all in league with Rosaleen O’Donnell. Lib’s encounter with copper-curled newspaper reporter William Byrne leads her to believe this. Like the other townsfolk, Byrne is initially barred from cabin as the O’Donnells seek to protect Anna from the intrusions of the outside world. At first, William labels Anna a fraud, but having scorned Lib’s sleep-feeding idea, William suggests the miraculous claims might be true after all. What if Anna wasn’t lying? Conviction certainly shines out of Anne, forcing Lib to recognize that the little girl might possibly be utterly sincere. From Sister Michael, the blinkered nun, to the bland priest, to the besotted and probably corrupt parents, Lib fanatically searches for a second opinion and for someone who can perhaps tell her if she’s losing her grip on reality.
I must confess that I knew nothing of the inspiration for Donoghue’s story: the so-called “Fasting Girls,” who supposedly stopped eating for months and even years at a time and were somewhat of a phenomenon from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s. In her afterword, Donohue reveals some basic facts about the Welsh fasting girl, Sarah Jacob. While some were inclined to believe Sarah was miraculous, others believed that her parents--like the O’Donnells--were in on the whole scheme, secretly feeding her when the public was gone. Thanks to Donoghue, we now have fresh insight into these children of history as well as the intrepid nurse Lib, who inadvertently becomes
a heroine railing against the machinations of the doctor, the mother, the maid, and the committeemen to ultimately become Anne’s unwilling savior.