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.

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

Frog Music This is the second book I’ve read by Emma Donoghue – the first was Room, which I enjoyed, and since then I’ve been wanting to try one of her historical fiction novels. This new one, Frog Music, is set in San Francisco in 1876 and is based on a true crime story.

Twenty-four-year-old Blanche Beunon, once a star of the Cirque d’Hiver in Paris, is now a dancer in a San Francisco burlesque club. She lives in the city’s Chinatown with her lover, Arthur Deneve, and his friend – and former partner on the flying trapeze – Ernest Girard. One week in August, two newcomers enter their little circle. One of these is P’tit, Blanche and Arthur’s baby boy, reunited with his parents after a year of separation. Blanche has rarely even thought about her baby during his absence, but now she discovers what being a mother really means.

The other new arrival is a woman called Jenny Bonnet, just released from jail after being arrested for the crime of dressing in men’s clothes. Jenny, who makes her living from catching frogs and selling them to French and Chinese restaurants, is like nobody else Blanche has ever met and makes her think differently about herself and her life. But when Jenny is shot dead, Blanche is convinced that she herself was the intended victim. Can she find the murderer before he kills again and before she loses P’tit again forever?

The real life murder case on which Frog Music is based remains an unsolved crime to this day, but the solution Donoghue provides is believable and consistent with what we have learned about the personalities and motives of the characters involved. The author also includes a detailed Afterword in which she explains which of the characters and events in the story are factual and which are purely fictional.

While there are some very unpleasant, unlikeable people in this novel, I thought the central character, Blanche, was wonderful. Her personality is a mass of contradictions: she’s tough yet vulnerable, intelligent yet naïve, self-absorbed yet sensitive. She’s such a well drawn character and felt completely real. I loved her and desperately wanted her to find some real happiness. Her story is so sad at times – I don’t want to say too much, but the circumstances surrounding the reappearance of P’tit are shocking and heartbreaking; I found that part of the book quite painful to read. As for Jenny, she remains a secretive and mysterious character throughout the novel. It is only towards the end of the book that we (and Blanche) begin to see beneath her protective outer shell and are finally given some glimpses of the real Jenny Bonnet.

The sense of time and place is very strong. I’m not sure I’ve read a book set in 1870s San Francisco before and I found it a vivid, atmospheric setting. The action takes place during both a heat wave and an epidemic of smallpox and both have an impact on Blanche’s story. Another interesting element of the novel is the role of music. Many songs and rhymes are quoted from in the book and information on each of them is given in an appendix. I thought this really added something to the story, helping to provide context and historical background. As Blanche and the other main characters are French and often use French slang, there is a glossary provided at the back of the book too, if you need help in translating any unfamiliar words.

My only criticism of this book is that the way the story is structured could cause confusion. It follows two time periods – one in Blanche’s present, describing Jenny’s murder and its consequences; the other flashing back to the beginning of their friendship a month earlier. Gradually the two storylines converge until they are only a day or two apart and at this point it becomes slightly difficult to follow the chronological sequence of events. Sometimes we are given the date, but not always, so it’s not immediately clear which thread of the story we are reading.

One other thing I should mention is that as Blanche is an exotic dancer there are some quite graphic descriptions of her work. It was maybe a bit excessive, but I could appreciate that it was all part of who Blanche is and it would have been hard to convey the realities of her life without being explicit at times.

Frog Music is not a book that will appeal to everyone (though you could say the same about any book, I suppose) but I thought it was great and having enjoyed this one and Room I’ll be looking for more of Emma Donoghue’s books soon.

Room by Emma Donoghue

It’s been more than a month since I read this book but it has taken me until now to find the inspiration to post about it. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book, but as I’ve said before I find it difficult to write about a book that has attracted so much attention and already been raved about by such a lot of people.

I’m sure most of you will already have seen so many reviews of Room that you won’t need a synopsis, but for those of you who do, the plot can be summarised very quickly. The story is narrated by Jack, a five-year-old boy who has spent his whole life living with his mother in a converted shed measuring eleven foot square. His mother had been kidnapped seven years ago and Jack was born in captivity. He has no idea that a world exists outside Room and apart from Ma and Old Nick, the man who is keeping them captive, he has never seen another human being.

The story could have been very harrowing, but I was surprised to find it was less upsetting than I thought. There are a lot of aspects of the plot that are very disturbing and uncomfortable to read about but there are also some positive things that come out of the story: the strong mother/son bond, for example, and the way Jack’s mother uses her imagination to keep him busy and entertained. Being told from a five-year-old’s point of view, there’s nothing very graphic but there are always dark undercurrents beneath the surface. The trauma of Ma’s kidnapping and the abuse she suffered at the hands of Old Nick are only lightly touched on; we know they happened but aren’t given many details because those are things Jack is too young to really understand.

When I first started reading I found Jack’s narration very irritating and I had an awful feeling I was going to have to abandon the book after a few pages. Luckily though, it seemed that I just needed to get used to it. Once I got further into the story I didn’t have a problem with Jack’s voice and even stopped noticing his unusual language after a while. I can see why Donoghue chose to use a child narrator to show the situation through the innocent eyes of a child born into such an unnatural environment. Jack doesn’t know that a different way of life is possible so is quite content with how things are and when Ma finally decides to ‘unlie’ and tell him about Outside, he finds it almost impossible to believe that such a place really exists. His mother was of course fully aware of what had happened and it would have been interesting to have read the same story from her perspective as well, but of course it would then have been a completely different and probably much more traumatic book.

I’m not sure this is a book I would want to read again, but it did keep me completely gripped and I’m glad I’ve finally read it, as it hadn’t really appealed to me when everyone seemed to be reading it last year.

Have you read Room? Do you think I would like any of Emma Donoghue’s other books?