Fiction The Wonder
Emma Donoghue (Picador, £14.99)
Great mysteries depend on the existence of great truths. What those truths are, as much as how to solve a central and compelling conundrum, is the burning question at the heart of emma Donoghue’s powerful new novel. the answer is a fearless broadside against the bogus and doctrinaire, played out with all the urgency of a thriller, but shaded with moral ambiguity. With its claustrophobic setting, The Wonder echoes her most recent, hugely successful novel Room and, likewise, scrutinises the unique intimacy between a mother and her child.
miss Donoghue takes us to ‘the dead middle’ of famine-ghosted ireland in august 1859. Devout, quick-witted and apparently healthy, 11-year-old anna O’donnell is a ‘living marvel’. she hasn’t eaten for four months. News of her miraculous fast has spread from her family’s humble cabin, attracting the faithful and drawing doubters. she’s in danger of starvation, exploitation or both.
a young english nurse is appointed to observe anna and establish the facts. Lib Wright is a ‘Nightingale’, fresh from the field hospitals of the Crimea and fully equipped with both professional expertise and personal demons. she believes in science and scorns dogma. Battling the latter, plus native superstitions, free-thinking Lib has only two weeks to disprove anna ‘a great liar in a country famous for them’.
anna’s distressing decline turns Lib’s physiological enquiry to psychological understanding. ‘Born into hunger’, her patient reveals a different way of apprehending life and accepting death, testing the divide between faith and reason. Lib fights, movingly, to save anna, but never sheds her ardent scepticism.
For all Lib’s assurance, The Wonder is a subtle and resonant examination of the defining conflict in our social and intellectual history, but is memorable for being as dense with feeling as it is with ideas. Caroline Jackson