The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

Despite enjoying two of Emma Donoghue’s previous books – Room and Frog Music – this latest novel about a girl in 19th century Ireland who stops eating didn’t appeal to me when it was published last year. It was only when I picked it up in the library a few weeks ago that I thought ‘actually, this does sound good’ – and with such a beautiful cover, how could I resist? And as it turned out, this is my favourite of the three Donoghue books I’ve read so far.

The Wonder is set in a small community in rural Ireland during just two weeks in 1859. Lib Wright, an English nurse who worked with Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War, arrives in the village to start a new job, knowing nothing about the position she has accepted except that her services will only be required for fourteen days. She is surprised to discover that her patient is an eleven-year-old girl, Anna O’Donnell, and that her task is not to nurse but to watch and observe.

Anna’s parents insist that their daughter has eaten nothing at all since her birthday four months ago and exists purely on prayer and faith. Lib is sceptical, but it seems that most people in the O’Donnells’ village – including the local priest and Anna’s elderly doctor – are happy to believe the claims. News of the girl’s amazing achievement has spread far and wide and visitors are arriving from all over Ireland to see ‘the Wonder’ for themselves. To prove whether or not Anna is a fraud, Lib and another woman – Sister Michael, a nun – have been appointed by a committee to take turns watching over Anna all day and night for the next two weeks.

Lib expects to get to the bottom of this mystery very quickly. Anna looks so healthy and full of life, it seems obvious that someone must be providing her with secret supplies of food – all Lib needs to do is keep her wits about her and ensure that she and Sister Michael never let the girl out of their sight. After a few days, however, she’s not so sure. Is Anna really the saint the villagers believe her to be? Is it all an elaborate hoax? Or could something more sinister be going on – and if Lib decides Anna is in danger, at what point should she try to intervene?

Like The Good People by Hannah Kent, another book set in 19th century Ireland, this is a fascinating exploration of the harm that can be done, often unintentionally, by superstition and a lack of understanding and the basic knowledge we take for granted today. In addition to this, there’s the hugely influential role of the Catholic Church, such a large part of everyday life for many Irish people in the 1850s, which Lib Wright – as an Englishwoman who has had her own faith driven out of her by her experiences in the Crimea – finds very frustrating; it seems incomprehensible to her that so many people are ready to accept that Anna O’Donnell is a living miracle when science suggests that there must be a more logical explanation. Anna’s situation is often quite sad and harrowing to read about and I desperately hoped her story would have a happy ending.

I was curious to know whether The Wonder was based on a true story, as the other Emma Donoghue books I’ve read were, but on reading the author’s note at the end it seems that although it is inspired by tales of Victorian ‘fasting girls’, it is not based on one particular case and is a fictional story.

The mystery element of the novel is very strong and at first the reader is as confused as Lib. Anna doesn’t appear to be a starving child, so she must be getting food from somewhere – but who is giving it to her and how? As the novel progresses and we learn more about the O’Donnell family and the community in which they live, other questions are raised. I was able to put enough of the clues and hints together to form a theory as to what was happening, but I was still completely gripped, waiting for Lib to uncover the truth. I thought The Wonder was…well, wonderful. Highly recommended!

This is Book 1/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

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28 thoughts on “The Wonder by Emma Donoghue”

  1. Hmm… I’ve been tempted by this book before and managed to resist, but you may well have tipped me over the edge! I’ve wanted to try Donoghue for a while, but Room never appealed to me. The story of this one is intriguing and I like the historical setting, and now you tell me it’s wonderful… oh dear, another one for the wishlist!

    1. The three Donoghue books I’ve read so far have all been very different, so even if Room doesn’t appeal it’s definitely worth trying one of her others.

  2. I’ve got a copy of this at home and I’ve been debating whether or not to read it. I really didn’t enjoy Room, but this one sounds really good. I think I might give it a go after reading your review. Thanks for sharing! 😊

    1. I enjoyed Room, but I thought this book was much better. The two are different enough that I definitely think you could like one without liking the other – I hope you’ll give it a go!

  3. Great review. I enjoyed this immensely when I read it last February. I agree about the mystery element. I was riveted by the writing and the story!

    1. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it too, Laurie. I was surprised by the mystery element – it kept me guessing and trying to work out what was going on!

    1. Yes, I think this would be a good choice for readers who are new to Donoghue. I liked Room, but I can see why it wouldn’t appeal to everyone.

  4. I have heard many good things about Emma Donahue but am still to read her works! You marvelous review has convinced me that “The Wonder” is a good place to start!

    1. I’ve enjoyed all three of the Donoghue books I’ve read so far but The Wonder is my favourite, so yes, I think it’s a good place to start!

  5. This isn’t one that I adored. I did, however, love her short stories, retellings of fairy tales, Kissing the Witch. She definitely has a way with stories!

  6. This sounds interesting and I now want to know what happens thanks to your review. I have only read Room and it hadn’t got round to reading any of her others.

    1. The cover is beautiful, isn’t it? I’m glad you like the sound of this one, even if Emma Donoghue’s other books haven’t tempted you. 🙂

  7. I’m very pleased to see you enjoyed this too! I agree that there’s a strong link between this and The Good People, both of which deal with similar questions in very evocative and moving ways. Donoghue is a writer who seems to take on a different skin every time she writes a novel. I’m coming to the end of her novels now, I think. I have The Sealed Letter at home and I want to read her Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits. Have you read either of those?

    1. Yes, all of the Donoghue novels I’ve read so far have been very different. I haven’t read The Sealed Letter yet, but it’s one that sounds particularly appealing to me, along with Slammerkin. I don’t know anything about The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits, except that it has an intriguing title!

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