Monday, September 5, 2016

Book Review: "The Wonder" by Emma Donoghue

Emotional, at times disturbing, and tremendously thought-provoking, The Wonder once again demonstrates the sheer power of Emma Donoghue's storytelling ability, which first dazzled me with the extraordinary Room.

Lib Wright was a nurse alongside Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, escaping her own personal issues. But after the war, even for a Nightingale Nurse, life is monotonous; she is treated with disdain by her supervisors and fellow nurses, and is left to little more than menial work. But when an unusual opportunity for work comes her way, she jumps at the chance.

Eleven-year-old Anna O'Donnell is growing up in a small Irish village. She claims not to have eaten anything for several months, and says she is subsisting on manna from heaven. Anna and her family have become a sensation throughout Ireland and England, journalists have covered the story with a combination of skepticism and hope, and people have begun to flock from all over the world to spend time with the "wee wonder."

Lib, along with a nun who is also a nurse, is hired to watch Anna around the clock, to prove whether Anna's claims are true. They are to watch Anna for two weeks, trading shifts, and then report on their findings, which would determine if the girl is the miracle which some claim she is, or if she is perpetrating some kind of fraud.

Is the girl getting some sort of secret nourishment, or is she really surviving on manna from heaven? Lib, who doesn't share the same religion as the O'Donnells or most of Ireland's citizens, is instantly skeptical, and believes she will uncover the truth fairly quickly. She searches for any way that Anna could be sneaking food, or if her family is in on the lie. But as she gets to know Anna, and understand where her religious devotion comes from, she finds herself doubting her own training and religious beliefs, and wondering if Anna really is part of a miracle.

But as Anna's condition starts to decline, Lib must decide what her true role is: is she merely investigating Anna's claims, or is she responsible for protecting the child, even if those around her might be endangering her? How can she go against her mentor's training, to remove any emotional involvement with her patients?

The Wonder posed some interesting questions, and Donoghue unfurled her plot and ratcheted up the tension, little by little. While I had my suspicions about how the story would tie itself up, it is tremendously compelling from start to finish, although it certainly was a little disturbing as well, because I don't understand the type of religious devotion which imbued the characters.

This book reminded me a bit of Ian McEwan's The Children Act, in that its protagonist faced an interesting emotional and ethical dilemma which they thought they would be able to solve fairly quickly given their professional expertise, but then found themselves drawn in beyond their expectations. Donoghue did a great job with this story, which made me think as it made me feel.

NetGalley and Little, Brown and Company provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!


  1. Slammerkin by the same author is one of my wife's favorite books ever, you may want to check it out.

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