One of the best things I did last year was join a book club. It is run by the Irish Embassy in Berlin and its aim is to promote contemporary Irish books also translated into German. The last book of the year was The Wonder by Emma Donoghue. After being slightly let down by the hype surrounding Room, I was curious to see how this book would pan out.
The Wonder* by Emma Donoghue is set in the Irish Midlands in 1859. English nurse, Lib Wright, is summoned to a tiny village to observe what some are claiming as a medical anomaly or a miracle – a girl said to have survived without food for months. Tourists have flocked to the cabin of eleven-year-old Anna O’Donnell, and a journalist has come down to cover the sensation. Lib’s job is to find out if Anna is indeed a miracle – or a top-notch scammer.
I don’t know why I thought this but I originally believed that The Wonder would be some sort of fairy story. Just in case you are thinking the same, it’s not. Instead, it is a period book with a gothic element that was inspired by actual cases of fasting girls.
What stood out for me were the underlying themes woven into the chapters of this book. One that we meet immediately is the reflection of Ireland at the time and especially how it was perceived by the English. During the first few pages, Lib looks down her nose at the Irish locals and touches on many stereotypes of the time. Therefore, it’s fair to say that I didn’t have a good first impression of the main character.
Through Lib, we also see how nurses were viewed at the time. Lib trained under Florence Nightingale and there are many instances in the book that show how much more knowledgeable she is regarding medicine than her (male) superiors deem her to be. Yet, her opinions are often dismissed. Along the same vein, the reader also gets an idea of how different medical procedures were during this time and can breathe a sigh of relief at how far we have come.
The theme of religion is probably the strongest in The Wonder. Unfortunately, I can’t go into much detail about the inclusion of religion due to spoilers. However, I can say that it is interesting to see yet again how far we have evolved in terms of religion. The O’Donnells are a very religious family and this leads to problems. Some beliefs may seem absolutely foreign now but if you are a 30-year-old raised Catholic like myself, some elements are familiar. What was actually interesting was that the Church doesn’t come across as the ‘big evil’ they often do today. Whether this was intentional or not by Donoghue is up to you to decide.
Two more points before I finish. One is that The Wonder has a fairly slow-moving plot, which may be a turn off for many. All I can do is recommend you to persevere as the ending is worth it. Secondly, young Anna is a wonderful character, albeit frustrating at times. I usually don’t fall for children in books but this one has a special place in my heart.
If you are looking for the deep emotion Emma Donoghue so wonderfully writes but with less of the darkness of Room, The Wonder is a good choice.