The Wonder by Emma Donoghue


published 2016




The Wonder 2The Wonder 3


[The 1850s. Lib Wright, a nurse, has come to Ireland to take on an unknown job]

Lib slept well, considering.

The sun came up just before six. By then she was in her uniform from the hospital: grey tweed dress, worsted jacket, white cap. (At least it fit. One of the many indignities of Scutari had been the standard-issue costume; short nurses had waded around in theirs, whereas Lib had looked like some pauper grown out of her sleeves.)



The Wonder 4


[She goes to meet the patient – an 11 year old girl]

The bedroom was an unadorned square. A tiny girl in grey sat on a straight-backed chair between the window and the bed as if listening to some private music. The hair a dark red that hadn’t shown in the photograph.

[Lib examines her]

Anna O’Donnell was perfectly obliging. Standing very straight in her plain dress and curiously large boots, she held each position for Lib to measure her, as if learning the steps of a foreign dance.


commentary: You can start this book as gently as you like, planning perhaps to spin it out and enjoy it in bits, but I don’t know how you could not become gripped and desperate to know what is going on, and end up staying up very late to find out how it finishes.

Nurse Lib Wright (one of Florence Nightingale’s Crimea ladies) has been called to the Ireland of the 1850s on a strange mission. A young girl is alleged to have eaten nothing for months, yet to be thriving. Surely this is a hoax, a trick? Two trustworthy women (a nurse and a nun) are going to take turns so the young girl is never alone, and they will get to the truth of what is going on.

Lib is very sceptical, suspicious. The nun is perhaps more open – the family involved is very devout and pious, and Anna speaks feelingly of God and religion. The two women spend alternating shifts with young Anna. Many visitors arriving, hoping this is a miracle, wanting to spend time with the girl: there is also a journalist wanting a story, and Lib strikes up a friendship with him in the local bar where they both stay. There is a lot of waiting and watching (though the story takes place over a very short time). Lib, ready to dislike the girl as an obvious fraud, becomes fond of Anna, and then worried about her. Then events start to speed up, as Anna slows down – Lib fears she might die.

Donoghue was inspired to write the book by the historical stories of the Fasting Girls, ‘hailed for surviving without food for long periods in the British Isles, Western Europe and North American between the 16h and 20th centuries.’

Although very much a historical novel, full of detail, the book has strong parallels with modern life: eating disorders, the place of religion, even the amount of paperwork involved in treating patients. Lib is notable for being a great character who is also quite annoying at times: she is very much prejudiced against Ireland and the Irish, and she constantly gets things wrong and misunderstands events, remarks and people. But still we are with her all the way…

I absolutely loved the book, and did indeed stay up till the early hours reading it because I couldn’t bear not to know what was going to happen.

I was somewhat puzzled by the mention of Confirmation, rather than First Communion, for the young girl – this wouldn’t make sense in modern times, but perhaps the arrangements were different then. (It is very common for non-Catholics to confuse the two, but I do not know that this is the case here.) Also, surely the most obvious way to try to persuade the girl to eat would be to get her to take the bread of Communion again, but this is never mentioned or suggested.

It is quite hard to find pictures of Crimean nurses – there comes a point where you wonder if it is actually significant that ONLY Florence Nightingale was ever photographed or drawn or painted. The cartoons are from the comic magazine Punch of the era – one shows busybody ladies staring at soldiers, and the ladylike nurses were probably a cross between those ladies and the very-surprised-looking one.

The picture of the girl is a favourite of mine – it actually shows a ‘criminal’ girl: no implications for the book above, and not really for her, poor soul. She is Mary Catherine Docherty, whose photo lives in the Tyne and Wear archives - she was convicted of stealing iron with some friends, and sentenced to seven days of hard labour.





















Comments

  1. This does sound fascinating, Moira. I do enjoy a good historical novel, and this one seems to be well-researched and authentic. And sometimes, a character who's at times annoying can also be an interesting, all-too human character that you can't help but like. Glad you enjoyed this as well as you did.

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    1. I very much did, Margot, and it was as thrilling and compelling as any crime book -I so wanted to find out the truth...

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  2. Totally agree - I absolutely ripped through this book, and gave it to a couple of friends thereafter. Yes, the ending is almost impossibly happy, but I LOVED IT! I felt the same about 'Room' too, which I read after seeing the magnificent film, and still couldn't put down. My God, she can tell a story...

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    1. Yes, Lissa, I'm not surprised we agree on this one. I thought it was close to perfect - short yet full of details, compelling plot, and I was secretly so pleased for the ending...

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  3. Art by either John Leech or Charles Keane.

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    1. Thanks Lucy - they didn't seem to be signed. Oh how I love old copies of Punch...

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  4. Confirmation does seem to be happening a bit later. I was surprised to hear that my aunts were confirmed at about 12 years old in the 60s, whereas it was 15 in the 80s.
    I don't know if it's relevant that it's often done through the school and the school leaving age has gone up.

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    1. I think it has moved around a lot! As you say, talking to relations reveals all kinds, a wide variety of ages.

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  5. This article seems to support the view that the ages of Confirmation and First Communion were different prior to 1910: https://www.catholicireland.net/first-communion-or-confirmation-first/
    Confusing the two is a bit like confusing the Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth - surprisingly frequent and quite irritating - but it looks as though as you say this isn't the case here.
    The British Library had some of Florence Nightingale's letters on display last time I visited, including some with fairly trenchant comments about one of her fellow nurses. They must have been very courageous and formidable women, not the gentle angelic stereotypes as they are often portrayed.

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    1. Oh that's very interesting thank you for the link - I found it surprisingly hard to pin down info on this. I think she probably did her research...
      Yes, the Crimean nurses must have been extraordinary women.

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  6. What a fascinating background for a story. I read of one poor girl, Sarah Jacob, who died of starvation when her access to food (which she had been eating in secret) was cut off by medical supervision to test her claims and her parents refused to let her be fed, convinced that she wasn't really starving (although, surely the nurses should have been able to overrule them?).

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    1. Oh, too horrible - what strange stories those were...

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  7. You have me curious about this book. I don't read many newer books, but maybe someday I will try this.

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    1. It's as compelling as any crime book, because the mystery at the heart (is it real? is she faking? is someone cheating?) is so compelling, she handles the tension very well.

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  8. Sounds interesting, but I'm not too into reading books mixed with religious motifs, even though the story of the two protagonists is fascinating.

    Don't like the anti-Irish viewpoint, but I suppose it can be overlooked by good writing.

    I did not read "Room," but saw the movie. Had to see it in segments, as it is an emotionally fraught story. It is gripping, but to think about the poor woman character and women in real life who have gone through this is tough.

    It still happens over here, and occasionally a story comes up in the news about a similar story. I shudder to think about the real women who have gone through the circumstances described in "Room."

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    1. I know, the whole Room scenario (in real life and fiction) is hard to deal with.
      In this book, without being too simplistic about it the author shows that the heroine, Lib, has many prejudices, about religion and race, but that she needs to think seriously about them before she can help with the situation. (That IS a bit over-simplified, but I wouldn't want you to think the book is prejudiced...)

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  9. Loathed her "Room" with a vengeance, so I'm never reading anything by her again, unless it's a written apology for inflicting that big bag of shite on the world.

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    1. You did make me laugh with this comment...

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  10. What does that mean about "Room"? These horrors do happen to women in life, and the movie portrays how terrible an impact the crimes have on women during, and even, after they are freed.

    So what was objectionable about the book? I didn't read it, but saw the very harrowing movie.

    Why shouldn't someone write about this terrible crime? I wouldn't be able to read it; the movie was tough enough, but it was because it was realistic and harrowing.

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    1. Kathy: I don't think Col means someone isn't allowed to write about it, he just didn't like it! I wasn't going to get into this here, because I liked her new book so much, but I didn't like Room at all, I had quite strong feelings about it. Would email you about it if you like...

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  11. Yes, please do email me about it. I'm not sure if you didn't like the writing or the story was too awful.

    I couldn't read it because the movie was tough enough to watch. I had to view it in different segments.

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    1. I really don't think I could watch it...

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  12. I'm recommending The Wonder to a reader friend, a retired nurse-midwife.

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    1. I'm sure any health professional would very much enjoy it. Is that your friend who wrote the book about her experiences?

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