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book review

Emma Donoghue’s latest novel examines 19th century case of child who is living on just water

Emma Donoghue is best known for her seventh novel, “Room,” a tour de force told in the ultra-naïve voice of a child who, until a dramatic escape, has spent his entire life in the room in which he and his mother have been held captive by a sexual predator. The book was immensely popular (though I, for one — perhaps the only one — found the narrative style contrived and cloying). Her next novel, “Frog Music,” set in 1876 San Francisco with a feisty French dancer and prostitute at its center, got a decidedly more mixed reception. The good news is that “The Wonder,” Donoghue’s present (and ninth) novel, is a fine work, adept and compelling in voice, plot, and moral complexity.

Set in August 1859 in Ireland, the story is told from the point of view of Lib Wright, a “lady nurse” who has served in the Crimea with Florence Nightingale. She has now come from England to the Irish midlands on an unusual assignment. Eleven-year-old Anna O’Donnell has, apparently, lived on only a few sips of water a day for the last four months. Unwisely, the village physician, Dr. McBrearty — something of an old fool — took it upon himself to send an account of the phenomenon to The Irish Times in Dublin. The story has delivered a stream of pilgrims and gawkers to the O’Donnell door but has also loosed a torrent of ridicule. The O’Donnells are pilloried as frauds and the believers as credulous simpletons. Feeling their honor is at stake, some influential men in the area have decided to engage Lib and a nun, Sister Michael, for two weeks to watch the girl day and night to see whether she actually eats.

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As Lib travels by carriage to the O’Donnell’s village, she observes her surroundings with English distaste: boglands, sodden fields, begging families, ruined dwellings. Spotting yet another burnt-out, roofless cabin, she is disgusted: “Nobody had taken the trouble to clear away the charred rafters, let alone frame and thatch a new roof. Was it true that the Irish were impervious to improvement?” Like most English people, she knows nothing of absentee landlords, rack-rents, evictions, or really anything about the state of this country so long under England’s punitive rule.

Arriving at the O’Donnell’s in a cynical frame of mind, she is convinced that it will take no more than a few days to discover the means by which the child is being fed. She finds Mrs. O’Donnell to be suspicious, overbearing, and vainglorious; young Anna, however, is sweet, tractable, intelligent, and, apparently, guileless. She says she is not hungry and that it is God’s will. Days pass, but neither Lib nor Sister Michael find evidence of the girl having had so much as a crumb. What is going on?

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Certain facts come to light: Anna had a brother who died less than a year ago and whom she deeply mourns; a fire-and-brimstone “mission” directed by Redemptorists priests was held in the village at the time Anna stopped eating; the girl has marked certain suggestive passages in her devotional books with holy cards; and the position of the parish priest on the matter is, to say the least, enigmatic. As the days pass, Lib realizes that she is not witnessing a simple hoax, but something more sinister and that she, herself, has become implicated. Donoghue tightens the tension, gradually adding small elements that in the end will come together in a sad and frightening picture, one tinted with the dark shades of Ireland’s brand of misogynistic, flesh-denying Catholicism.

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Donoghue has peopled the novel with excellent characters: In addition to Lib, Sister Michael, Anna, McBrearty, the unlovely Mrs. O’Donnell, and a few others, there is a skeptical reporter from The Irish Times, who, I am glad to say, sets Lib straight on the state of Ireland.

As the watch continues, Anna’s condition deteriorates, and she seems to be on her way to death by starvation — though not according to that doofus, Dr. Brearty, who offers his own scientific view of the matter: “Might her metabolism not be altering to one less combustive, more of a reptilian than mammalian nature?” I can say no more on further developments except to mention that Donoghue deals out the cards with real skill. If the ending itself does not seem entirely believable, I, at least, could not have wished it arranged otherwise.

THE WONDER

By Emma Donoghue

Little, Brown 304 pp., $27


Katherine A. Powers received the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle and is the editor of “Suitable Accommodations: The Letters
of J. F. Powers, 1942 – 1963.”
Her e-mail address is kapow3@gmail.com.