Many of you may know I’ve been annoyed at the lack of straightforward storytelling in the 2016 fiction that I’ve read. Emma Donoghue’s new novel looked like it might be exactly what I wanted—an exciting story with interesting questions to resolve told in a reasonably straightforward way. And The Wonder is all of those things. It’s a fun book to read. But a straightforward book gives an author fewer places to hide, and the book has some exasperating flaws.
The novel is set in 1850s, Ireland. Elizabeth “Lib” Wright, an English nurse trained by Florence Nightingale, has been asked to come to Ireland to observe 11-year-old Anna O’Donnell, who has supposedly been living without food for months. Lib is a skeptic, not just about this particular supposed miracle but about religion in general. It’s apparent right from the start that she looks down on the Irish for what she considers superstitious beliefs and their poverty.
Despite having served as a nurse in the Crimean war and experienced great personal suffering herself, Lib displays little sympathy for the Irish, who are just starting to see the end of years of famine. This callousness makes Lib difficult to like at first, but it’s not what exasperated me about her. A lot of her attitude comes, I think, from having been thinking about other things during the famine and therefore being ignorant of Ireland. I can understand that, and it makes her growth in understanding an important piece of building her character. But I found some of her other blunders hard to believe. For instance, when little Anna mentions “manna from heaven,” Lib has no idea what that could mean. I’m not sure an educated 19th-century woman, religious or not, wouldn’t understand the reference. She also makes a wrong assumption about Anna’s brother that makes absolutely no sense. I knew Donoghue was probably trying to make Lib a little clueless, but I couldn’t quite get past these moments. She makes plenty of other entirely understandable errors, so these mistakes weren’t needed to establish her blind spots.
Still, despite my never entirely accepting Lib as a believable protagonist, I was interested in Anna’s story. I’ve been musing over how The Wonder compares with The Vegetarian, another book about a starving woman and which I also just read. Both Yeong-hye and Anna give up sustenance out of a belief in or desire for something higher. They reject what is fleshly about themselves. Yeong-hye’s decision causes almost universal consternation and concern, while Anna attacts admirers and skeptics. Anna, unlike Yeong-hye, lives in a religious world where getting beyond the body makes sense.
In The Wonder, religion brings Anna sympathy and admirers, but it appears to be largely destructive, especially when seen through Lib’s eyes. It gives people, including Anna, a reason to excuse or even celebrate what is happening to Anna. Faith blinds Anna’s own doctor, who searches for evidence of a miracle. But, as the book goes on, it becomes evident that religious faith is not, by definition, a force for ignorance. Two of the people who are most helpful to Lib are Catholic. But they are also the ones who’ve been out in the world, which perhaps broadened their views enough to allow them to interpret the church’s teachings in a different way. Anna, bright and curious and thoughtful, was isolated and given little good information and teaching and so her faith became easily twisted with few opportunities for corrective influences. It’s a sad story that continues to be acted out today.