Fic­tion The Won­der

Country Life Every Week - - Books -

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

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