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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Andrew Hughes: The Coroner’s Daughter

I found so much to love in The Coroner’s Daughter! A strong, resourceful heroine with a passion for science; an interesting historical setting – 19th century Dublin; and a twisting, turning mystery to keep me guessing. Just like Andrew Hughes’ first novel The Convictions of John Delahunt, which I read and loved a few years ago, this is another great book which manages to be both highly entertaining and darkly atmospheric.

The story takes place in 1816, known as the ‘Year Without a Summer’. The city of Dublin is shrouded in fog and when a frosty July is followed by snow in August, people are at a loss to explain what is going on. Eighteen-year-old Abigail Lawless, however, has conducted her own research into the phenomenon, linking the unseasonable weather to a volcanic eruption on the other side of the world. As the coroner’s daughter, Abigail has always possessed a natural curiosity for anything scientific – and is particularly interested in her father’s work, performing autopsies to establish the cause of death.

When a young servant in a neighbouring household is accused of murdering her newborn baby – and is found dead before the inquest can be held – Abigail is sure there is more going on than meets the eye. She easily discovers the identity of the maid’s lover, but this is only the beginning. The strict religious sect known as the Brethren has been increasing in size and power since their influential leader, Mr Darby, arrived in Dublin the previous year. As she continues to investigate, assisted by her father’s young Scottish apprentice, Ewan Weir, Abigail becomes convinced that the Brethren are connected with the death of the maid and her baby. But who else might be involved? And if Abigail becomes too deeply involved herself, could she be putting her own life in danger?

I really enjoyed The Coroner’s Daughter. I think I preferred John Delahunt as the plot seemed more original and unusual, but this book is excellent too. I loved following Abigail around the Dublin of 1816 which, thanks to the gloomy and oppressive weather, is a very atmospheric setting. Our heroine’s investigations take her to a variety of locations from the Lying-In Hospital at the Rotunda to the smart terraced houses of Fitzwilliam Square and a clockmaker’s workshop on Abbey Street – and all of these are vividly described. Although it’s quite a dark story, it’s written with a lot of humour, which was obvious from the very first sentence: For my eighteenth birthday, Father promised me the hand of a handsome young man, which he duly delivered mounted in a glass bell-jar. First sentences can be so important and that one captured my attention immediately!

I found the scientific aspect of the novel particularly interesting. The story takes place at a time when the fanatical religious views of groups such as the Brethren are coming into conflict with the work of scientists such as the astronomer Professor Reeves, a friend of Abigail’s father. As a woman, Abigail faces additional obstacles, as is seen when she is forced to submit one of her reports to a scientific journal under her father’s name in order to get published, and again when she is the only female member of the audience at an astronomy lecture given by Professor Reeves. Mr Lawless does try to encourage his daughter to be more ‘feminine’ but at the same time, not having any sons, there’s the sense that he is only too pleased to have someone to share his knowledge and passion with!

Now I’m hoping Andrew Hughes will write more books about Abigail Lawless. She’s a great character and the way the novel ended makes me think that she could easily be brought back for a sequel. If not, I will look forward to reading whatever he writes next.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this book for review.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

One day in 1945, Catherine Goggin, sixteen and unmarried, is banished from her small village in West Cork, Ireland, for committing the sin of becoming pregnant. Shamed by the priest in front of an entire congregation and cast out by her family, Catherine makes her way to Dublin in the hope of starting a new life for herself. When her baby boy, Cyril, is born several months later, she makes the decision to put him up for adoption – and from this point, Catherine steps into the background of our story. Our attention switches now to Cyril, growing up in the home of his adoptive parents, Charles and Maude Avery.

Charles is a rich but disreputable businessman with a weakness for gambling and womanising, while Maude is a temperamental, chain-smoking novelist who hates the thought of anyone actually buying one of her books. Unsurprisingly, they do not make good parents and never let Cyril forget that he is “not a real Avery”. The one bright spot in Cyril’s life is his friendship with Julian Woodbead, the son of Charles Avery’s lawyer. Julian is popular, sophisticated and daring; everything Cyril wants to be. As the boys grow older, however, and enter their teenage years, Cyril becomes aware that what he feels for Julian is not just friendship but love.

Narrated by Cyril himself, the story is divided into sections moving forward seven years at a time, taking us from the 1940s right through to 2015 and around the world from Dublin to Amsterdam to New York. Along the way we meet a range of characters who, while they may not be very realistic, are so vividly drawn they almost jump out of the page; I particularly loved the hilarious Mary-Margaret Muffet, Cyril’s first girlfriend, who has “very high standards” and who proudly announces to everyone she meets that she knows all about the world because she works on the “foreign exchange desk at the Bank of Ireland, College Green”. We also witness, through Cyril’s eyes, some of the most significant historical events to occur in his lifetime, including the bombing of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin, the impact of AIDS in the 1980s, the 9/11 attacks and Ireland’s referendum on gay marriage.

The main focus of Cyril’s story, however, is on his sexuality and how he comes to terms with it. As a young man growing up in Catholic Ireland, he quickly discovers that it is not at all easy to be homosexual in a society where people don’t even want to acknowledge that such a thing exists; his attempt to confess to a priest has shocking consequences! And so, for a long time, Cyril tries to deny his feelings even to himself (hence Mary-Margaret and one or two other women). Eventually he can suppress his love for Julian no longer…but things don’t go exactly according to plan.

Actually, things never do seem to go according to plan for Cyril and it would be difficult not to feel some sympathy! Sometimes it’s his own fault, as he does make a lot of mistakes and bad decisions, but he is also a victim of prejudice, intolerance and lack of understanding. With the novel jumping forward in seven-year chunks, we see not only how Cyril’s personal circumstances have changed in the intervening time, but also how attitudes towards homosexuality have changed – subtly at first, but quite dramatically by 2015. I couldn’t help feeling, though, that sometimes the messages Boyne was trying to get across came at the expense of the story.

Having read and enjoyed several of John Boyne’s novels over the last few years, I was really looking forward to reading The Heart’s Invisible Furies and although A History of Loneliness is still my favourite, I did find a lot to like about this one – his longest and most ambitious book yet. I should probably warn you that the humour is often very dark and sometimes not in very good taste, which won’t be for everyone, and that as Cyril’s sexuality forms such an important part of the story, it’s also quite explicit at times. I wasn’t sure whether it was going to be my sort of book or not at first, but after an uncertain start I found myself being drawn into Cyril’s story and then there was no question of not finishing it!

Following Cyril Avery’s life from birth to old age was a memorable experience! He’s a wonderful character…so complex and so human. Although the plot is built around a series of highly unlikely coincidences, I didn’t mind too much as it meant everything fell into place at the end. Not all of the characters get a happy ending, but some of them do and I was left with the hope that the younger generations of Cyril’s family would find certain aspects of their lives easier to deal with than poor Cyril did!

Historical Musings #24: Ireland

Historical Musings

With St Patrick’s Day less than a week away – and to join in with the Reading Ireland Month being hosted by Cathy and Niall – I thought I would devote this month’s post to a discussion of historical fiction set in Ireland.

The first books to come to mind when I think of Irish historical fiction are two very big novels by Edward Rutherfurd – Dublin and Ireland: Awakening (published in the US as The Princes of Ireland and Rebels of Ireland), two books taking us through the entire history of Ireland from the year 430 to the 20th century. I read these books years ago and they gave me an excellent overview of Irish history.

Another novel set in the distant past – and fitting perfectly into the St Patrick’s Day theme – is Joan Lesley Hamilton’s The Lion and the Cross, a novel about the life of Patrick himself.

I love a good family saga and I can think of two set in Ireland. The first is Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier; although the name of the country in which it is set is never actually named, it’s obviously supposed to be Ireland. The second is Cashelmara, one of several novels written by Susan Howatch which I read a long time ago and remember loving. The story is set in 19th century Ireland, but the lives of the characters cleverly mirror the lives of several Plantagenet kings. This – along with Howatch’s Penmarric and The Wheel of Fortune – is on my list for a re-read.

Staying in the 19th century, why not try The Convictions of John Delahunt by Andrew Hughes, a dark and atmospheric historical crime novel about a young student at Dublin’s Trinity College who comes up with a very dubious solution to his money problems. I am currently reading Hughes’ second novel, The Coroner’s Daughter, which is also set in Dublin and, so far, is a great book too. I can also highly recommend The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters by Michelle Lovric, only partly set in Ireland but featuring a wonderful set of Irish characters. And you may have seen my review last week of The Good People by Hannah Kent.

Moving forward into the early decades of the 20th century, there’s The Secret Scripture by Irish author Sebastian Barry. Like all of Barry’s novels, it’s worth reading for the beautiful writing alone. Of the other books of his that I’ve read, On Canaan’s Side and The Temporary Gentleman are set partly, but not entirely, in Ireland.

There’s also Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor, a novel written in the second person (which is quite unusual) and telling the story of the actress Molly Allgood and her relationship with the playwright John Millington Synge.

Another Irish author whose books I enjoy is John Boyne, but most of his are not actually set in Ireland. However, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, which I’ve recently read but haven’t reviewed yet, takes place in Ireland as well as in several other locations around the world, and spans several decades from the 1940s to the present day. Finally, I want to mention The Herbalist by Niamh Boyce, in which a mysterious stranger arrives in a small town in 1930s Ireland – and also Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, which gives some insights into the life of a young Irish immigrant in 1950s America.

Have you read any of these books? Can you recommend any more historical fiction set in Ireland? If not, I hope I’ve given you some ideas for future reading here!

The Good People by Hannah Kent

the-good-people The Good People is the second novel from Australian author Hannah Kent, following her 2013 debut Burial Rites. I liked Burial Rites – the story of a woman found guilty of murder in 19th century Iceland – but I didn’t love it the way so many other readers did and I was curious to see what I would think of this new one. Now that I’ve read it, I can say that this is definitely my favourite of the two.

The Good People is set in rural Ireland in the 1820s. Nóra Leahy is going through a difficult time, having lost both her daughter and her husband in the space of a year. She has been left to take care of her four-year-old grandson, Micheál, who should be a blessing to her – but to Nóra he is nothing but a worry. She remembers seeing him as a healthy, happy baby, yet the little boy her son-in-law has brought to live with her is entirely different: he is thin and sickly, has lost the use of his legs, can’t understand what is being said to him and communicates through uncontrollable screaming. Nóra knows something is badly wrong with him and, unable to cope on her own, she hires a girl, Mary Clifford, to help her look after him.

Mary is shocked by Micheál’s condition, but does her best for him with the limited knowledge she has, aware that Nóra is starting to view the child with fear and revulsion. In this isolated community, neither the village priest nor the doctor are able to offer any useful advice or explanations, so Nóra seeks the help of the healer and wise woman Nance Roche. Nance knows all about the world of the fairies, or the Good People, as she calls them, and tells Nóra that Micheál is not her grandson at all, but a changeling. Together, Nóra, Nance and Mary set about trying to drive the fairy out of the child’s body in the hope that the real Micheál will be restored.

As you can imagine, The Good People is not exactly the happiest or most uplifting of books – but then, not everything that happens in life is happy or uplifting either, and, like Burial Rites, this novel is based on a true event from history. Poor Micheál’s story is a tragic one, all the more so because of the treatment he receives from the very people he should be able to rely on for love and affection. The worst of it is, these people really seem to believe in fairies and convince themselves that Micheál really is a changeling, because then there is a chance that he can be cured. Through a mixture of ignorance and superstition, they think they are doing the right thing.

Hannah Kent writes beautifully and from the very first page the reader is pulled into a bygone world, a remote community in which the people, despite living in a Christian society, are still holding on to their ancient beliefs and traditions. This is not a fantasy novel or a fairy tale, yet the unseen fairies are a very strong presence throughout the story: we are told that the Good People live in their ringfort, Piper’s Grave, in a lonely part of the valley where lights dance around the ghostly whitethorn tree, and that their powers are strongest at the place where three rivers meet. Everyone seems to know of at least one person who has been ‘swept’ away by the fairies and they just accept these things as part of their everyday lives.

Because of the overwhelming sadness of the story and the suffering of little Micheál, I know this isn’t a book that will appeal to everyone, but I was very impressed by it. I loved it for the quality of the writing, the intensity of the atmosphere and the insights into life in a less enlightened time and place.

Thanks to Pan Macmillan for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Lion and the Cross by Joan Lesley Hamilton

The Lion and the Cross If you’re looking for the perfect book to read as St Patrick’s Day approaches, this could be it. Originally published in 1979, The Lion and the Cross: A Novel of Saint Patrick and Ancient Ireland has recently been made available as an ebook by Open Road Media. Narrated by Patrick himself, it is a fictional account of the life of the man who would become Ireland’s patron saint.

The story takes place in the 5th century, a time of unrest and uncertainty as the period of Roman rule in Britain has come to an end, leaving the country vulnerable to attacks from raiders. As the novel opens in the year 410, Magonus Sucatus Patricius, son of wealthy Romano-Britons, is sixteen years old. Despite being the grandson of Potitus the priest, Magonus himself has no intention of devoting his life to religion, but this is something which will slowly change. The first big turning point in Magonus’s life comes when he is captured by barbarian raiders who take him across the sea to Ireland where he is sold into slavery.

Now known as Padraic, or Patrick, he spends the next few years herding sheep in the Irish countryside and – after catching the attention of the Ri and Rigan (king and queen) – trying to survive the intrigues and machinations of the court. During this time his faith strengthens and when he eventually manages to escape from his captivity and from Ireland, Patrick must make the decision whether to one day return and convert the people to Christianity.

In The Lion and the Cross, Joan Lesley Hamilton has drawn on a variety of sources including The Confession of St Patrick, Irish mythology and historical fact to recreate the story of Patrick’s life. As she states in her author’s note, this period of history is ‘obscured by the roiling, silent fog of centuries’ and there are many things we don’t know about Patrick and his world; however, I think Hamilton does a good job of working with what little information is available and finding the right balance between fact and fiction.

The praise at the front of this book compares it to Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy, which I have read and loved. Although they are very different stories, I can understand the comparison; like Stewart’s The Crystal Cave, The Lion and the Cross is set shortly after the decline of the Roman Empire, it is narrated by a young male protagonist and it has a slightly magical feel (the first chapter deals with Patrick’s meeting with the Morrighan, a legendary Celtic goddess). The writing is quite beautiful and poetic at times, but let down by the dialogue – some of the characters speak with Irish accents which, to me, don’t sound at all right.

Patrick himself is not the easiest of characters to like. He is a stubborn, arrogant and defiant young man and because of this, despite the ordeals he goes through, I sometimes found him difficult to connect with. Patrick’s personality, though, is an important part of the story; it’s the reason he’s able to survive and to accomplish what he does, and it explains his internal struggles with God and the doubts he has to overcome. I did enjoy learning about Patrick and his life, but the religious element of the novel is very strong (as you would expect from a book about a saint) and I think the ideal reader for this book would be someone with a particular interest in religious history.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this book for review.

A History of Loneliness by John Boyne

A History of Loneliness The first John Boyne book I read was This House is Haunted, a Victorian-style ghost story. The second was Crippen, a fictional account of the life of the murderer Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen. His latest novel, A History of Loneliness, deals with a subject no less dark and disturbing: the child abuse scandal within the Catholic Church in Ireland.

If you have heard about this scandal on the news or read about it in the newspapers, you have probably asked yourself the following questions. How did these paedophiles get away without being caught for so long? Their friends and colleagues must have known what was going on, so why didn’t they say anything? And why did the victims not come forward earlier? John Boyne attempts to answer these questions and more through the story of Odran Yates, a Catholic priest from Dublin who is ordained in the 1970s and lives through some of the darkest days in the church’s recent history.

Having lost his father and little brother under tragic circumstances during a family beach holiday, the young Odran doesn’t argue when his mother tells him he has a vocation for the priesthood and must dedicate his life to God. After seven years of training, Odran begins working at Terenure College where he finds that teaching English and tidying books in the school library suits him better than carrying out the duties of a traditional parish priest. Hiding away in his library for thirty years, Odran is able to ignore what is happening elsewhere in the church…but is he really as oblivious as he claims to be?

A History of Loneliness is a very insightful and thought-provoking novel and my favourite John Boyne book so far. This is obviously never going to be an easy or comfortable subject to write a book about, but he handles it with sensitivity and understanding. By telling the story from Odran’s perspective this means the focus is not just on the issue of child abuse itself, but also on the dangers of burying our heads in the sand and choosing not to confront things that we find difficult or unpleasant.

There are several different ways in which Odran’s character could be interpreted. I saw him as a weak, naïve but basically well-meaning person who made some terrible mistakes and serious errors of judgment. It’s difficult for anyone to know how they would react under similar circumstances, but I’m sure we would all like to think that we would do what is right and not just take the easy way out. Odran doesn’t always do the right thing and he does sometimes take the easy option, but does that make him as guilty as the people who have actually committed the crimes? It’s left to the reader to decide how much blame should be attributed to Odran and those like him and whether there can ever be any excuse for turning a blind eye and doing nothing.

The novel has an interesting structure as the chapters don’t follow each other chronologically (a chapter set in 2006 is followed by one set in 1964 and then 1980). This was confusing at times but very effective because it meant we were filling in one piece of the story at a time, like a jigsaw puzzle. John Boyne is a wonderful storyteller and as well as exploring the serious, sensitive issues I’ve already described, he also creates an absorbing personal story for Odran and his family which unfolds slowly as we jump back and forth in time.

With the story spanning more than five decades, we are shown how public perception of the Catholic Church has changed over the years. In the 1970s and 1980s, Odran is treated with respect and admiration everywhere he goes; people trust him and look to him for help and advice, never questioning his integrity. By the time we reach the present day, attitudes are completely different. A man spits in Odran’s face just because the clothes he is wearing identify him as a priest, while an attempt to help a lost child in a department store ends in disaster. It’s sad because, of course, not everyone within the church was involved in these sexual scandals and yet they have all suffered through the actions (or non-actions) of others.

A History of Loneliness could easily have been a very depressing book, but thankfully Boyne does add some humour to the story – even if he does seem to rely on Irish stereotypes and clichés at times (if you’ve ever watched the comedy Father Ted you’ll know the sort of humour I mean). If I haven’t already made it clear, I loved this book and am so glad I still have so many of John Boyne’s earlier novels left to explore!

I received a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.