The Wonder begins as a nurse, Mrs. Elizabeth “Lib” Wright, travels to a tiny village in the remote “dead centre” of Ireland in the 1860s. Lib, who describes herself as a widow, is one of the legion of female British volunteers who responded, some years earlier, to Florence Nightingale’s call to join her in Crimea, to care for wounded and dying British soldiers during the Crimean War. That harsh novitiate—compounded of the horrors of the battlefield and Nightingale’s relentlessly strict oversight—changed Lib’s life. Her training has made her, in the middle of the Victorian era, a new sort of woman: professional, in control of her emotions, knowledgeable, scientific. What happens to her in Ireland will remake her again.
As in Emma Donoghue’s best-selling 2010 novel Room and its 2015 film adaptation, The Wonder focuses on the relationship between a child and a woman. Lib, taking a leave of absence from the English hospital where she now works, has crossed the Irish Sea on a commission: She is to provide nursing services to a patient about whom she knows nothing, but whom she assumes, because of the generous compensation she’ll receive, to be wealthy. Arriving in the village, she is surprised to learn that the patient is a preadolescent girl, the child of dirt-poor parents, and that her sole duty will be to watch the girl closely every day for the following two weeks. She’ll share this duty, in a rotation of eight-hour shifts, with an older Irish nun, a Sister of Mercy who is also a nurse. Their wages will be paid by a committee of local men who want the two women to get to the bottom of a mystery.
That mystery is embodied in Lib’s young charge: 11-year-old Anna O’Donnell, who for four months—ever since the day of her first Communion—has refused all food. She ought by now to have died of starvation, and yet she appears basically healthy. A hyper-religious child, Anna declares that she needs no earthly nutrition because she has been subsisting on “manna from heaven,” and she engages in a compulsive round of daily rituals that include the frequent repetition of a whispered prayer. Over the months the girl has kept her fast, word of this “wonder” has spread across Ireland and even beyond, and each day pilgrims appear at her parents’ door, eager to receive her blessing.
Is Anna’s incredible survival a miracle or a hoax? That’s the question that the local folk have hired Lib Wright and her colleague, Sister Michael, to answer, hoping that by subjecting the child to a round-the-clock watch, they’ll discover whether Anna is telling the truth or, through some unknown subterfuge, has all the while been secretly receiving nourishment. And so The Wonder’s early sections record Lib’s meticulous, day-by-day observation of Anna and her family. An unbeliever aghast at the pieties of Irish Catholicism—which she sees as benighted superstition—Lib is convinced that the little girl is a fraud, and sets herself the task of proving it. To reveal any more would be to spoil the plot, but you may rest assured that the situation proves more complicated than Lib at first imagines. She will find, for example, that her insight into human behavior and motivation is not quite as accurate as she believed, and that clues to the truth can stand right in front of her, seen but unrecognized.
Donoghue’s skill as a novelist is revealed as The Wonder evolves from a medical procedural to a crime story and—unexpectedly but not implausibly—a romance. It’s a highly entertaining read. But, like Room, it’s also a morally challenging book, showing how adults may callously endanger an innocent, unwitting child to bolster their own inane beliefs and, more cruelly, to protect themselves from the revelation of their sins.
Photo: Punch Photographic