As you can see from my review of Room – the first book review I ever published on this blog – I’m definitely a fan of Emma Donoghue’s writing. But, despite my love of the heartbreaking Room and my insatiable appetite for well-written historical fiction, the plot of Donoghue’s latest release, The Wonder, initially didn’t grab me. Set in mid-nineteenth century rural Ireland, the novel follows the unusual and gripping case of young Anna O’Donnell, a devout Catholic who claims to have survived without food for three months. But are her assertions factual? Is the entire situation a hoax, or a miracle of faith? With the highly religious community bent on establishing the truth of the matter, a Catholic nun and a Crimean War-trained nurse, Lib Wright, are recruited to guard Anna day and night, and discover if she really is the saintly marvel her family assumes she is. Protagonist Lib is refreshingly modern in her views – atheism included – and acts as a fitting guide to this archaic world of patriarchy and tradition.
But I got The Wonder out of the library, and started to read it anyway. Admittedly I binged it on a train journey from Glasgow to York – which is very conducive to obsessive reading – but I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this voraciously readable, exciting book.
Donoghue’s writing is simple, but spellbinding: with effortlessly vivid description and a compellingly tense plot, what seems like a straightforward expose of ludicrous narrow-mindedness becomes a complex minefield of nationality, faith and family ties. Based on the surprisingly widespread phenomenon of ‘fasting girls’ – geographically scattered individuals who alleged that they could survive without food for a considerable period of time, most common in the early modern period – it’s clear that Donoghue has conducted masses of historical research. Although the world is undeniably well-constructed, more historical detail – especially regarding Lib’s fairly veiled backstory – would be welcome at points. So too would more introspection in a novel that’s mostly all plot; although the gripping unpredictability of the latter certainly isn’t something to be passed over without praise.
Verdict: a brilliantly thrilling read ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Have you read The Wonder? What did you think? Please let me know in the comments below, I’d love to hear your thoughts ❤