[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.)
[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.