The Haunting of Hill House

haunting-of-hill-houseThis book by Shirley Jackson might have had more of an impact on me if I weren’t already a fan of the 1963 film (soooo creepy!), but it’s still a good book, even if you know what chills are coming and are thus less easily shocked by them.

Hill House is not a good house. Right in the first page, we are told this:

Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. With, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and door were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Right from the start, Hill House was built wrong. The angles aren’t quite right, and doors aren’t exactly where they’re supposed to be. And the house has a dark history. A dispute between heirs led to suicide. And now, it’s empty, visited by caretakers who refuse to stay the night.

An academic interested in the supernatural, Dr. John Montague wants to understand Hill House, so he gathers a group of two women who’ve shown some psychic ability and a heir to the current owner to come stay at Hill House and see what happens. The book focuses on one of the women, Eleanor, a spinster who spent the last several years caring for her mother. Hill House looks like the opportunity for liberty she’s been longing for, a chance to remake herself away from the family members she loathes.

It takes a while for it to become clear that the house is working on Eleanor in a way that is different from the others. But eventually, Eleanor becomes bound up in the house in a way that frightens the others.

So what is it about Eleanor that makes her a target? She’s alone and detached even from those close to her, and she’s prone to fantasy, as is evident from her musings on the drive to Hill House and her quick attachment to Theo, the other woman in the group. It’s unclear, though, how much of Eleanor’s thinking, especially late in the book, comes from her or from the house.

The house itself is surely an object of terror, but early on, it’s usual haunted house stuff—cold spots, rattling doors, writing on walls. Creepy, yes, but it’s easy to shake off (or at least it is if you’re reading at home at not at Hill House). The real fright comes from the way the house becomes beguiling. It woos Eleanor, even as it plays its tricks. And Eleanor was ripe for wooing.

There’s something inside Eleanor that makes it possible for Hill House to reach her. There’s the part that wants to be remade, to live a new life, to slough off old commitments. And a lot of people feel that way at times. The desire to slipping out of our old live and into something new, away from the current irritations, can make even the worst situations look appealing. And once that wooing voice gets in our heads, what might we do to accept the offer?

Posted in Classics, Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 13 Comments

The Cornish Coast Murder

cornish-coastI read about the British Library Crime Classics on Litlove’s site a couple of years ago. They are reprints of lesser-known crime fiction, put out by the Poisoned Pen Press, with titles like A Scream in Soho, Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm, and The Female Detective. What could be more appealing? So when I saw one on my library’s shelf — The Cornish Coast Murder, by John Bude — I grabbed it.

The book, written in 1935, opens in the tiny town of Boscawen, on (surprise!) the Cornish coast. The local doctor, Pendrill, and Vicar Dodds are settling in to their weekly ritual of dinner, whiskey, and — best of all — dividing a case of detective thrillers between them. This pleasant evening is interrupted, however, when the vicar receives a telephone call, informing him that the local magistrate, Julius Tregarthan, has been murdered.

I haven’t read a mystery quite like this in years. The local inspector, Bigswell, is competent and thorough, but baffled by the conflicting evidence. He gets help from the vicar, who, as a devotee of detective novels, believes in the “intuitive method,” which means he eliminates suspects based on his feelings that they couldn’t possibly have killed anyone and then works from there. The magistrate’s niece Ruth, a young veteran of the Great War, and one of Tregarthan’s servants are all suspects at one time or another.

This book came out the same year as Gaudy Night. Well, it’s no Gaudy Night — we don’t have the deep characters, the real relationships, the wrestling with problems of autonomy and love, and the consequences of detection. It’s not plotted as beautifully as an Agatha Christie novel, either, and some readers may feel they weren’t given enough information to solve it by themselves. But on the other hand, there are no horrific, gruesome murders, no grimly alcoholic and tormented inspector, no perversion, no betrayal. If you’re looking for light, entertaining reading, and a loving description of a real place (something you don’t often get during this time period), The Cornish Coast Murder is a fun way to pass a couple of hours. I might even look for others. A Scream in Soho sounds good, doesn’t it?

Posted in Classics, Fiction, Mysteries | 6 Comments

Book Swap: 2017 Edition

It’s time again for one of Shelf Love’s favorite traditions: this is the seventh year that Teresa and I have given each other five book recommendations to read sometime during the coming year. Sometimes they’re books we’ve had on the back burner for ages. Sometimes they’re something we’ve only read in the past year, but we know the other person will love it! The best thing about the swap is that, as longtime friends, we know each other’s tastes so well, and we trust each other. In 2016 we had one bust: Teresa didn’t enjoy one of Jenny’s recommendations much, but overall we’ve had a huge amount of success and fun doing this. Let’s see how we’ll do in 2017!

Jenny’s picks for Teresa: 

  1. Young Romantics by Daisy Hay
  2. Life With a Star by Jiří Weil
  3. A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes
  4. The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban
  5. The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Teresa’s picks for Jenny

  1. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
  2. Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf
  3. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
  4. The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota
  5. A Kind of Intimacy by Jenn Ashworth

Teresa: So how did you know I was planning to finally get around to reading something by Frances Hodgson Burnett this year? I was vaguely thinking of starting with one of her children’s books, but The Shuttle has been on my mental list for years, as has A High Wind in Jamaica and Life With a Star. And I like how you often use the swap to catch me up on children’s books I never read. I’m not familiar with Young Romantics, but I enjoy literary biographies, and that crowd offers no end of interesting material.

Jenny: This was the year of just choosing oddities I thought you’d really love. I can’t wait to see what you think. And I love what you chose for me! Our Souls at Night and A Kind of Intimacy are on my TBR list because your reviews of them were so wonderful. And you’ve read several things by Jacqueline Woodson, so this helps me choose where to start. Hooray! Bring on the new year!

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Birds, Art, Life

birds-art-lifeWhen writer Kyo Maclear began taking care of her ailing father, she found herself adrift and unable to write. Constant worry and the changing patterns of her day became difficult to manage.She writes that

A mind narrows when it has too much to bear. Art is not born of unwanted constriction. Art wants formless and spacious quiet, antisocial daydreaming, time away from the consumptive volume of everyday life.

It wasn’t until she met a musician who was also a serious birder that Maclear started to feel a sense of direction. She became fascinated with birds and the idea of birding, so she asked if she could follow the musician for a year and learn to watch the birds. This book is a record of some of the birds she saw and her reflections on them during that year.

As a book about birds, this book doesn’t offer much. It’s not in any way an in-depth study of birds. Although it is interesting that Maclear mostly observes urban birds in her Toronto neighborhood, she doesn’t spend time on questions like how the growth of cities affects animal life.

On the other hand, as a collection of musings about life, this is pretty enjoyable. Maclear uses her observations as a springboard into other ideas. And so each chapter becomes a pleasant, sometimes meandering essay on a theme drawn from her birding observation.

For example, when she helps the musician feed his father’s finches, she starts thinking about cages and limitations, including her mother’s brief attempt to escape her marriage. A chapter on small birds turns into a consideration of smallness in art and how art that is tiny and meticulous can be just as rewarding as art that is grand and sweeping. She also considers artists and writers who adopted second passions and the value of art in the face of difficulty.

Maclear’s writing here is thoughtful and often thought-provoking, although I don’t know that many of the ideas will stick with me for long. There were no great aha moments or remarkable insights that I’ll ponder long into the future. But there were some points of interest, and I appreciated that Maclear didn’t try to come to tidy conclusions. This is book about thinking through big questions, not about figuring things out.

I received an advance e-galley of this book for review consideration via Edelweiss.

Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction | 4 Comments

Nox

nox

I had a birthday in July, and I received a copy of Anne Carson’s beautiful book-artifact Nox, in which she explores — in poetry, in Latin, in photography and letters and art, in what is said and not said — her relationship with her brother Michael, who has died. I had heard so much about it, primarily from Teresa and Jenny, that I was very excited to read it — to savor it, really, so it would last a long time. But at the beginning of August, a close friend of mine died, and I found I could not even open the book, or begin to think what it might mean to read it. So I set it aside for a while.

The week before Christmas, almost five months later, I found I could bear to read it. It’s a beautiful book-object, meticulously produced, for one thing. It’s a box, the shape and size of a large hardback book, and inside is a kind of scroll: pages all connected together in one long strand. On the verso of each page is a single word in Latin from Catullus’s Poem 101, and a somewhat freewheeling, uncited dictionary definition of the word in English. Almost every single definition includes some version of the word in the context of nox, or night. On the recto of each page, facing the Latin word, is Anne Carson’s meditation on her dead brother. This might be: a photograph, or a slice of a photograph; a short paragraph; a single line; a drawing; an excerpt from one of his letters home, or a piece of one, or a word from one; a memory. Each meditation usually has a loose connection to the word on the facing page.

So far, so complex, so deep. But Anne Carson had a difficult relationship with her brother. He ran away in 1978 to avoid a term in jail, and spent his life in Europe and India under a false passport and another name. He spent years at a time without writing home; his mother died believing he was dead. How to construct meaning from the fragments of such a life, from resentment and pain? The book may be one long strand, but Carson allows the life — or her knowledge of it — to be fragmented: pieces of letters, half-memories, solemn photographs that don’t yield up the thoughts of the people inhabiting them.

At times, the frustration is palpable. WHO WERE YOU, demands one page, the letters etched white on black. This is the question of history, of Herodotos, and also the question of Carson, of anyone left behind. It’s my question, too. I knew my friend well, but I’ll never know her any better than I do now. I’ll never hear another story about her missionary grandparents, or find out how she changes as she gets older, retires, has grandchildren. She is mute to me now. And that muteness, of course, those “silent ashes” of Catullus’s poem, are for all of us in the end.

Nox is an exceptionally rich piece of literature and art, facing the night with beauty and pain. It takes on the idea of history, of memory, of love and forgetfulness, of distance and a broken life, of what it is to be a sister to a brother who has disappeared. I am so glad I read it at last.

Posted in Memoir, Poetry | 7 Comments

The Fireman

firemanJoe Hill’s latest novel drew me in so quickly and so thoroughly that I placed it on my 2016 books of the year list when I was only halfway finished reading it. There was a point near the end when I thought I’d live to regret that decision, but I didn’t. And there’s a moment tucked into the credits page at the end that made me want to hug this book with delight. It was the perfect ending of what most people I know agree was a pretty rotten year.

I do not, however, want to give the impression that this is a happy book. It’s a dark and violent horror novel, but it’s exactly the kind of thing I want in this genre. The story begins with the recent outbreak of some sort of disease that causes people to develop a scaly rash that eventually bursts into flame. It’s unclear how this Dragonscale spreads, but it happens quickly and there’s no cure.

Harper Grayson, a cheerful nurse with a Julie Andrews-inspired can-do spirit, has devoted her days to treating those who’ve caught Dragonscale, but it’s a losing battle. She and her husband, Jakob, have agreed that if they get the ‘scale, they will drink some wine, make love, and end it all. But that changes when Harper discovers two things: that she has the ‘scale and that she’s pregnant. Healthy babies are born to women with the ‘scale, and she wants to give her child a chance. Jakob is having none of it, so Harper must find a way out and into a world where people with the ‘scale are increasingly being treated as threats.

With the help of a mysterious man in firefighter gear, Harper ends up at Camp Wyndham, a place filled with people who have learned to live with Dragonscale. As they sing together, the ‘scale glows and shines, and they happily share in what they call the “Bright.” As a nurse, she quickly becomes a valued member of the community. But the longer she’s there, the less safe the community appears.

There’s so much to enjoy about this book. The main plot follows a fairly predictable course, but there’s comfort in that. What’s fun is seeing exactly how the community collapses and following the specific allegiances and betrayals as they unfold and turn back on themselves. And the principal characters are likable, although Hill overplays Harper’s Mary Poppins love at times. Still, I enjoy that his characters clearly live in our world and enjoy and discuss our culture. Hill uses these interests to flesh out the characters, just as we use shared interests to get to know people in our own lives. I also absolutely adored the bits we see of Jakob’s novel in progress. It was so perfect. Jakob did become something of a cartoon in the end, but I still found him satisfying. And I always enjoy little callouts to Stephen King’s Mid-World. (Hill is King’s son, and King’s influence on his work is clear.)

This book is more than 700 pages long, but I didn’t often feel its length. Some of the action sequences went on longer than I would have chosen, but I find action sequences less interesting than character development and world-building. I wanted a little more of the world outside Camp Wyndham. And between the climactic “O come let us adore him” scene here and pretty much all of NOS4A2, I’m pretty sure Joe Hill wants us to be terrified of Christmas.

And then there’s that ending! I have rarely felt so worried about characters’ fates as I did in the final chapters of this book. And what happens is just right. This is a book about living on in spite of calamity all around. I think it’s the exact right message for this particular New Year.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 9 Comments

2016 in Review

Every year, I wonder whether I really want to do a year in review post. By the time the new year actually comes, end-of-year book lists have usually been floating around for months, and I get burned out on book lists. (This apparently makes me a weird book person, in that we’re all supposed to like lists, but I really do get bored with them.)

Still, I do find it valuable to take stock once in a while, and when Liz remarked on Twitter that she found the year better than she thought when she looked back, I decided that the exercise might be worth it. However, I’m going to keep it simple this year and not present a whole bunch of numbers and trends. I haven’t been keeping track as much this year, and I’m not as interested in that stuff as I used to be.

As of this writing, I’ve read 92 books this year. That may make it up to 93 if I finish The Fireman by the end of the day. (And I might! It’s hard to put down!) Last year was 94 and the year before was 93, so this seems about typical. So which books were the standouts that I enjoyed almost entirely without reservation? I’d consider these my top 10.

  • Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors by Piers Paul Read was absolutely gripping even though I already knew the story.
  • Bellwether by Connie Willis is pure zany fun.
  • Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer is a fantastic collection short stories exploring people’s inner darkness.
  • Emma by Jane Austen was a reread, and my enjoyment of it was greatly enhanced by the opportunity to learn more about it at the JASNA meeting this fall.
  • The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope offers a deliciously terrible leading lady who’s up to no good at all.
  • The Fireman by Joe Hill. OK, I haven’t finished this yet, but I’m more than halfway done, and I’m having a fantastic time reading it. If it takes a turn, I’ll come back and amend this.
  • A Kind of Intimacy by Jenn Ashworth is a beautifully constructed look inside a truly disturbed mind.
  • Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf is a quiet gem of a book.
  • The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater is a thrilling conclusion to an excellent series.
  • Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion is an essay collection that shows why she’s a master of the form.

Looking at this list, I’m pleased at how wide-ranging it is. There are lots of genres and periods represented. Most of the books listed have a strong narrative, which is something I’ve craved this year. (Much of my irritation with this year’s Booker list was in the lack of plot in so many of the books.) This list happens to be pretty white, but I had lots of 4-star reads by writers of color that nearly made the cut. (OreoLaRoseand Half a Lifelong Romance come immediately to mind.) What these 10 books have in common is that each one pulled me in and kept me wanting more.

As for 4-star reads, there were lots. I read a lot of good books this year, but very few really grabbed me. They were competent. Books I can’t really complain about but that didn’t ever dazzle. I’m not sorry to have read these books, but I’m hoping to be dazzled more next year. (And I’ll admit that between starting a new job and being stressed about the election and its aftermath, I may have been hard to dazzle this year.)

As for next year, I’ve been setting a Goodreads goal of 100 books per year, but I don’t fret much if I don’t achieve it. I just like to have enough of a goal to require some effort. But if I have to abandon reading long books or force myself to read when I’d rather do something else, then there’s not much value in reaching the goal. So I’m going to stick with that 100-book goal. It works for me, even if I don’t get there.

I’m going to continue to seek out books by authors of color and translated works, but I’m not setting a firm goal. About 30% of the books I read this year were by authors of color, which I believe is the best I’ve ever done. Just over 10% were translations, which is good for me. I was a little sparse on international authors, especially when considering how many of the international authors I read were from Ireland and Canada (which technically counts but doesn’t expand my cultural boundaries much.)

This year, I read a lot more new fiction than in the past, largely because I enjoy being part of the conversation. The results were mixed. I thoroughly enjoyed the Tournament of Books and am looking forward to following that again this year (and hoping that my more extensive 2016 reading pays off when the list is announced). And the Shadow Booker was once again a lot of fun, even if I didn’t like the books much. New books are more of a risk, but it’s fun to have opinions on the books everyone is talking about. So I’m not sure how I’ll prioritize new books this year.

I think, overall, that the best goal for me is to see where my mood takes me. The TBR Dare continues under the leadership of Annabel and Lizzy. I used to be very committed to reading or ditching books within 4 (and then 5) years of acquisition, but I’ve mostly given up on that this year, and I’m not inclined to pin down my reading right now. I do want to keep my To Be Read pile under control, so maybe Simon’s Project 24 plan to purchase only 24 new books during the year would be better. Mostly, though, I just don’t want to make commitments. Jenny and I are doing our book swap again this year—post with lists to come—and that’s about the limit of what I want to commit to. A year without goals! Let’s see what happens!

Posted in Uncategorized | 11 Comments

The Year Behind, the Year Ahead

champagneA very merry Christmas and the happiest of New Years to all of you! I hope you all got stacks of books during the holiday, and are bright-eyed with everything you’ve read! As I usually do around this time, I wanted to do a little musing about the year’s reading and about some directions I might take in 2017.

This last year, I read 78 books, so one of my resolutions for 2016 (to read more) was achieved, but barely. I think my days of reading 140 books a year may be over for a while! Still, the books I read were mostly excellent, and I’m happy with my choices.

I like to try to read roughly one pre-1900 book, one book by an author of color, and one nonfiction book per month, in addition to anything else I’m into. This year, I managed to make all of those goals, with 13 nonfiction books, 13 books by authors of color, and 12 pre-1900 books. (I kind of feel like I was cheating on the pre-1900 book goal, since several of them were Laura Ingalls Wilder books I’ve read fifty times, but I’m counting them!) In 2017, I’m tweaking one of these goals slightly: I’m going to try to read two books by authors of color each month. I’m hoping this will also encourage me to read more in translation — something I want to do but don’t want to add as a specific goal. There’s nothing, absolutely nothing I’ve done in recent years that has opened my world more than adding this particular goal to my reading. I want more.

And now a quick look back at some of the best (and not-so-best) of 2016:

Best Travel Book: I read quite a few travelogues this year, from Amelia Edwards’s A Thousand Miles Up the Nile to Mary Kingsley’s Travels in West Africa. But the best books about going places were, hands down, the books I read by Robert Macfarlane: Mountains of the Mind and The Old Ways. Macfarlane’s books are a combination of travelogue, memoir, cultural history, geology, geography, and biography. Mountains of the Mind talks about why we continue to climb high mountains even when it kills us, and The Old Ways discusses ancient paths from shielings and Neanderthal paths to pilgrim trails and common ways. Both were beautiful books, well and wryly written, glorious and riveting.

Best Novel in Which the Protagonist Dies More Than Twenty Times: Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson. This novel has so much death in it that you wind up surprised how thoroughly it is about life — about relationships and love, about ambition and desire, about learning and tenderness. I must have explained the premise of this book to more than a dozen people this year, trying to get them to read it. Just fantastic.

Best Nonfiction that Made Me Laugh So Hard I Snorted: David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. How do I love his nonfiction? Let me count the ways. It makes me laugh, it makes me think, it makes me sad, it makes me want to spend as much time as possible with that mind.

Best Nonfiction That Did Not Make Me Laugh Even Once: Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I’m so glad I read this essay, especially because it was difficult reading. It’s a time for difficulty, and I want to be ready.

Best Epic Novel: Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman. This enormous Russian novel takes place during World War II, and follows the multifarious fates of the Shaposhnikov family. Grossman himself was present at many of the events he writes about, and his book is vivid (and sharply critical of Stalinism.) It’s an undertaking, and hugely worth it.

Novel I Wanted Everyone to Read: Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The characters in this book were so real to me, and the writing so lively, so incisive (and quotable!) that I wanted to hand this out on street corners.

Best Author New to Me: This year, thanks to Tom at Wuthering Expectations, I discovered W.G. Sebald, author of The Emigrants and Austerlitz (among others.) These books touched me deeply with their subtle, haunting, strange explorations of the long shadow of the Holocaust in Europe.

And then…

Absolutely the Worst Novel I’ve Ever Read Ever Ever, No Kidding: The Little Paris Bookshop. This mawkish piece of garbage made me regret my choice to go on living as I read it for two solid hours. Avoid! Avoid!

How has your end of year been? I’d love to hear what books you got or how you are doing.

Posted in Uncategorized | 15 Comments

Rush Oh!

rush-ohWhaling is not a topic that comes up much in the books I read, but this is the second book focused on whaling that I’ve read this year. The first, The North Water, was grim, grim, grim, but I enjoyed the way author Ian McGuire just went for it, filling the book with plot and not ever letting up. Shirley Barrett’s book is altogether different. It’s actually kind of cheerful, despite the fact that it’s a book about hard times and everything falling apart. It has the feel of old-fashioned historical fiction, in which life is hard but happy.

The book is Mary Davidson’s memoir regarding the whaling season of 1908. Mary is middle-aged now, and although this book is focused on that one season, when she was 19 years old, she diverges from the main thread to include memories of her childhood and hints about the intervening years. The book has an improvised quality, as Mary veers off course in her reminiscences, only to stop herself and return to main story at hand.

Mary’s father, George, was a superb whaler, but at the time of Mary’s story, he and his crew were experiencing some hard years. The family was in debt, and every day without a whale brought the family closer to permanent calamity. We know early on that this was not to be George’s last whaling year, but there is a sense that it might be the beginning of the end.

As for the whaling itself, Mary’s descriptions of it are fascinating. George and his crew are guided in their pursuit by a group of Killer whales. The orca will alert George and his crew to the presence of large whales in the vicinity, the cry of “rush oh” will sound, and the Killer whales and men will head out to take down their massive prey. For their efforts, the orca are allowed to feed on the carcass, and when they leave it, the men pull it up and harvest the whale oil. This was an actual real thing! In the afterword, Barrett cites the books she used and quotes from several accounts of orca and man hunting together. I had no idea!

As all of this is happening, Mary is falling in love with a member of her father’s crew, the former Methodist minister, John Beck. There are some mysteries in Beck’s past, but that doesn’t deter Mary. She likes bantering with him, and the feeling appears to be mutual. But Mary’s tone, as a writer looking back, gives the impression that this may not last.

Although a lot happens in Rush Oh! this book doesn’t have a strong narrative drive. There’s no big source of suspense, no single problem to surmount. The book is a slice of life from a particular place and time. The main question I had as a reader was why this year? What happened to make this year the most important? It appears that it may be John Beck’s presence, but perhaps not. We do learn the answer, but I’m not sure it’s important. The point is, this is a kind of life that existed and doesn’t anymore. Mary’s task is to preserve the memory of what it was like to be there. And so she does.

Posted in Fiction | 7 Comments

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.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 6 Comments