I read Emma Donoghue’s novel Room a few years ago when it came out and I loved it. It was a beautiful story and certainly worth reading. That novel is the reason I picked up The Wonder when I saw it at the bookstore. It’s also a 2016 Scotiabank Giller Finalist so I figured it would be a good read. What I seemed to overlook is that Donoghue writes both contemporary and historical fiction and I didn’t realize that The Wonder falls into the historical category.
I don’t often read historical fiction but not for any good reason, I just tend to stick to more contemporary stories. I was a bit worried at first that I wouldn’t like it as it took me a while to get into it but I was happily proven wrong.
The Wonder is about an 11-year old girl, Anna, who hasn’t eaten anything for four months. She is quickly becoming a sensation as she does not seem to be suffering from a lack of nourishment after all this time and both media and tourists are coming to see her. A council that includes her doctor and her priest among other townspeople decide to hire two nurses to watch over the girl for a two-week period to determine if what the girl says is true or if she is a fraud. This won’t be a miracle if she’s secretly eating and it’s a very Catholic town.
The story takes place in the 1850’s in a small village in Ireland and it’s told from the perspective of Nurse Elizabeth Wright, Lib, a nurse from England that trained under Florence Nightingale. She along with another nurse, Sister Michael, begin the two week watch. As I read about the relationship that Lib and Anna develop over time, I became more and more fascinated by the story. Lib finds herself torn between the duties she has been hired to do – simply observe the girl – and her inclinations as a nurse as Anna’s condition begins to worsen. She pushes the girl to eat but Anna’s religious beliefs help her maintain her stance. And while Lib struggles to understand Anna’s stance, she also uncovers what might be at the root of Anna’s quest. The story quickly evolved into a great thriller.
The stakes continue to rise as Anna’s health continues to fail and her steadfast belief in her fast cannot be shaken by anyone. As Lib learns more, she becomes more and more torn about what she needs to do. The ending was worth the entire read.