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Emma Donoghue's novel is set in a small community in the midlands of Ireland in August 1859. It is claimed that a child has eaten nothing since her eleventh birthday, four months previously. Lib, a nurse who has worked in the Crimea under Florence Nightingale, is one of two appointed to watch the girl night and day for two weeks in order to establish the veracity of the claim.
Lib is sceptical; about the claim, about the motives of everyone involved and especially the beliefs and rituals of Roman Catholic religion as practiced in this part of Ireland. How her opinions mature and evolve over the two weeks forms the substance of this powerful novel. The relationship that develops between Lib and the child is beautifully drawn. Is she being exploited by her parents, by the local priest, or by the doctor who hopes to be able to publish the details of the case as evidence of a medical breakthrough? Perhaps by all three. Perhaps something even more sinister lies behind the child's behaviour.
And what of the journalist who comes in search of a scoop for his London newspaper? Is he just another carpetbagger or might he hold the key to releasing the child from the clutches of those whose motives she questions?
The Wonder is a cleverly constructed novel that explores the human desire to seek solace in the miraculous when faced with suffering. Set just a few years after the famine that accompanied the failure of the potato crop in Ireland for seven consecutive years, it also analyses the impact of starvation on the bodies and minds of those affected as well as on the minds of those who observe.
There is more to ponder, too, about the nature of exploitation. What about those who come to gawp, hoping that witnessing this new “wonder” will somehow enrich their lives, or the many who are encouraged to believe that touching some article that may once have been touched by a saint can cure their ills?
As the tension built I found it difficult to put the book down. I will not spoil the ending for potential readers by giving it away, but I have to admit that I did find the resolution just a bit too pat for an otherwise excellent novel.
© Frank Parker
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