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The Wonder, Emma Donoghue, Little Brown and Company, 2016, 291 pp
As far as I am concerned, Emma Donoghue is herself a wonder. Though I have only read four of her many books, each one is unique both from her other books and from much of contemporary fiction I come across. I admire her as an author who has a viewpoint and works from that no matter what she writes. Part of the viewpoint is an awareness of the particular difficulties inherent in being a woman.
For hundreds of years there have been women who survived long periods without eating. Today we call it anorexia, though I would guess that the underlying reasons or causes are as varied now as they have been throughout history.
Anna O'Donnell is an eleven-year-old in mid 19th century Ireland who stopped eating on the day of her first communion. When Lib Wright arrives on the scene, Anna has reportedly not eaten anything for four months.
Trained as a nurse by Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, Lib now works in England and has been hired to carry out a watch of Anna as part of a two woman team, the other of which is a local nun. Lib is certain that something other than what has been claimed is going on and that Anna is somehow getting food secretly.
The novel juggles quite a number of factors at play in rural Ireland in those times. The potato famine is still a recent memory. The grip of the Catholic Church over the people's lives is iron but also mixed with ancient Celtic lore. Lib Wright brings modern medical science, such as it was then, and skepticism to the scene but also a secret sorrow of her own.
Of course, Donoghue is a master of plotting with a bent toward the mystery form as well as the mysterious. The story gets off to a somewhat slow start but that turns out to be effective. The reader is as out of place and in the dark as Lib herself, so as she pursues the case you are right with her the whole way.
Most heartbreaking is the relationship that grows between Lib and Anna. Can Lib save Anna from trauma, false beliefs, as well as starvation? Can she get to the bottom of what she was sure is a hoax? Read it and find out.
(The Wonder is available in hardcover and audio book by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)