My New Title Tuesday recommendation, The Wonder by Emma Donoghue, is an absorbing historical novel about the Fasting Girl phenomenon that occurred in Ireland in the mid-1800s.
Publisher Summary: The Irish Midlands, 1859. An English nurse, Lib Wright, is summoned to a tiny village to observe what some are claiming as a medical anomaly or a miracle – a girl said to have survived without food for months. Tourists have flocked to the cabin of eleven-year-old Anna O’Donnell, and a journalist has come down to cover the sensation. The Wonder is a tale of two strangers who transform each other’s lives, a psychological thriller, and a story of love pitted against evil.
Donoghue’s ninth novel – her first historical one set in her homeland of Ireland – was a bestseller in Canada even before publication, and was shortlisted for the Giller Prize.
Donoghue’s The Wonder is intelligent without being pretentious or heavy-handed. She provides meaningful details and counterbalances the dire circumstances with a hint of romance and an exploration of the impact of science, religion, class, gender, and poverty.
An example can be seen early in the novel during an exchange between Nurse Wright and Anna’s mother, Rosaleen O’Donnell, about tourists being allowed to visit the girl – giving her gifts or possibly sneaking her food:
“Hospitality’s a sacred law with the Irish, Mrs. Wright. If anyone knocks, we must open up and feed and shelter them, even if the kitchen floor do be thick with sleeping people already.” The sweep of her arm encompassed a horde of invisible guests.
Hospitality, my foot. “This is hardly a matter of taking in paupers,” Lib told her.
“Rich, poor, we’re all alike in the eyes of God.”
It was the pious tone that pushed Lib over the edge. “These people are gawkers. So keen to see your daughter apparently subsist without food, they’re willing to pay for the privilege!”
Anna was twirling her thaumatrope now; it caught the light.
Mrs. O’Donnell chewed her lip. “If the sight moves them to almsgiving, what’s wrong with that?”
Author Emma Donoghue explained on her website why she chose the topic: “I came across the Fasting Girl phenomenon back in the mid-1990s … and I was instantly intrigued by these cases, which seemed to echo medieval saints starving as an act of penance, and also modern anorexics, but weren’t exactly the same as either. It seemed to say a lot about what it’s meant to be a girl – in many Western countries, from the sixteenth century right through to the twentieth – that these girls became celebrities by not eating.”
Justine Jordan’s alembic review of The Wonder in The Guardian says it best:
Donoghue draws out the narrative suspense with her customary combination of historical verve and emotional delicacy, as the mystery becomes not so much what is happening beneath Lib’s nose, but why. “Everybody was a repository of secrets,” Lib muses, as she starts to look beyond her desire to expose trickery towards a truth that can be expressed only through suffering, not words. Faith, or what Lib calls “religious mumbo-jumbo”, can trump reason. Anna is mourning a dead brother, obsessively totting up how many prayers will get him into heaven, and the dark days of the famine still hang over the village. “A child now 11 must have been born into hunger. Weaned on it, reared on it … every thrifty inch of Anna’s body had learned to make do with less.” Caught at the nexus of family secrets, religious hysteria and medical hypothesis, with one doctor idly wondering if her chilled extremities are a sign that she is changing into “more of a reptilian than a mammalian nature”, Anna has only one power available to her: the anorexic’s power of refusal.
But Donoghue also sets Anna and Lib’s relationship in a wider context: of English and Irish antagonism, of the birth of nursing, of the clash between science and faith.
I am sure you will enjoy The Wonder and its suspenseful and glimpse into Irish history.
Happy Reading, Susan C.
Also by Donoghue
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Frog Music: Summer of 1876: San Francisco is in the fierce grip of a record-breaking heatwave and a smallpox epidemic. Through the window of a railroad saloon, a young woman called Jenny Bonnet is shot dead. The survivor, her friend Blanche Beunon, is a French burlesque dancer. Over the next three days, she will risk everything to bring Jenny’s murderer to justice–if he doesn’t track her down first. The story Blanche struggles to piece together is one of free-love bohemians, desperate paupers and arrogant millionaires; of jealous men, icy women and damaged children. It’s the secret life of Jenny herself, a notorious character who breaks the law every morning by getting dressed: a charmer as slippery as the frogs she hunts.
Landing: A delightful, old-fashioned love story with a uniquely twenty-first-century twist, Landing is a romantic comedy that explores the pleasures and sorrows of long-distance relationships—the kind millions of us now maintain mostly by plane, phone, and Internet. Síle is a stylish citizen of the new Dublin, a veteran flight attendant who’s traveled the world. Jude is a twenty-five-year-old archivist, stubbornly attached to the tiny town of Ireland, Ontario, in which she was born and raised. On her first plane trip, Jude’s and Síle’s worlds touch and snag at Heathrow Airport. In the course of the next year, their lives, and those of their friends and families, will be drawn into a new, shaky orbit. This sparkling, lively story explores age-old questions: Does where you live matter more than who you live with? What would you give up for love, and would you be a fool to do so?
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