Irish writer Emma Donoghue is best known for her 2010 bestseller Room. Her new novel, The Wonder, is set in rural Ireland in the 1850s. It is based on the many historical cases of “fasting girls” – women or girls who claimed to live without food for months or even years. Today we would regard them as anorexic, but the novel is set before such a condition was even identified, let alone understood.
The story’s narrator is Lib Wright, an English nurse who had served in the Crimean War under Florence Nightingale. She is hired to spend a fortnight watching 11-year-old Anna O’Donnell, who apparently has not eaten for four months, to find out if she is a miracle or a fraud. The two find themselves in an appalling situation as the days pass and Anna comes closer to death. Surrounded by religious hysteria, family secrets, and crank scientific theories from an increasingly obsessed family doctor, Lib tries to discover why Anna seems prepared to die rather than eat.
Donoghue skillfully creates a suffocating and claustrophobic atmosphere. The plot is well-constructed and tightly-paced, and the historical details ring true. As with Room, the horrors at the centre of the story are handled with emotional depth and delicacy.
This gripping and thought-provoking book is highly recommended.