The Wonder

the-wonderMany 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.

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6 Responses to The Wonder

  1. Swistle says:

    I read this one, and I was happy to find a book that kept me wanting to get back to it—but I had some of the same issues with it that you did. I got heartily sick of Lib being so NASTY in her thoughts, without apparent reason. I’ve returned the book to the library so I can’t look for exact quotes, but it was mostly in word choices that seemed bitter/angry/vicious at a point when we’d still expect her to be merely skeptical and observant. Also, I got tired of the device of Lib asking herself questions in order to move the plot along.

    • Teresa says:

      One of the annoying things about her nastiness was that I couldn’t always tell if the author intended her to come across that way. The complaining about the poor quality of the food really bothered me. She did seem kinder toward the end, or else I got used to her attitude, so I think it was supposed to show character development.

  2. Jenny says:

    Is this partly a Protestant v. Catholic issue, or is it strictly a Catholic v. skeptic issue? Those might provide different biases. Anyway, I’m starting to think that only Sarah Waters should write historical fiction about women.

    • Teresa says:

      Lib does identify herself early on as being from the Church of England, but it seems like a cultural marker as she shows no signs of religious belief and very little knowledge. I would not expect her to understand specifically Catholic ideas, but she seems mystified by anything spiritual.

  3. Rohan says:

    I was quite interested in the conflict between Lib’s determinedly materialistic views and Anna’s faith, and by the tension introduced by her gradual realization that it might be her own determination to turn Anna’s situation into a perfectly controlled scientific experiment that is, by the end, actually starving / destroying her. She is pretty cold and nasty at first, but I thought she softened as she found her own assumptions being challenged.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, I think her unpleasantness at the start gave her room to grow and expand her views. I appreciated that she had to step out of her initial plans and adapt to Anna’s way of thinking in order to really help. And what she tells Anna at that point could be construed as true, if we accept that truth can be metaphorical without being literal.

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