Thursday, December 1, 2022

Emma Donoghue - The Wonder

An eleven-year-old girl stops eating, but remains miraculously alive and well. A nurse, sent to investigate whether she is a fraud, meets a journalist hungry for a story.
Set in the Irish Midlands in the 1850s, Emma Donoghue's The Wonder - inspired by numerous European and North American cases of 'fasting girls' between the sixteenth century and the twentieth - is a psychological thriller about a child's murder threatening to happen in slow motion before our eyes. Pitting all the seductions of fundamentalism against sense and love, it is a searing examination of what nourishes us, body and soul.

Comment: This is the first book I try by this author...I have not entered the train of Room but the premise of this one caught my attention and I'm quite glad I read it. I might even try something else by the author (not Room since I already know the plot, and no, I have not seen the movie either).

The story begins with the depressing journey nurse Lib Wright embarks on from England to Ireland, around the 1850s. Lib discovers she is going to watch over a girl who claims to not have eaten anything for four months and she believes she will quickly find how she secretly eats, for it is impossible the child to still be healthy and not eat. She is initially surprised by Anna, a very quiet and unassuming young girl, terribly religious, but who wasn't in Ireland, and how much she starts to like the girl. As the days go by and she doesn't get to understand how the hoax is being conducted, Lib starts to have doubts about several things but, then, something happens and Anna does start to show signs of getting weaker. Will Lib find a way to help Anna or is the girl going to die in front of everyone?

The idea of this story, a young girl claiming to be fasting because she feels it's her religious duty to do penance over her recently dead brother's soul, has a certain fascination if one isn't familiar to what religion and sense of duty can make one think and act, especially at a time when people didn't defy ideas or dogmas that generations have carried on. I suppose one can still see something like this nowadays, in how fundamentalist sections/groups still follow rules and words written for a society of centuries ago...

Anyway, religions' ideas aside, the story also works because of the atmosphere... rural countryside at a time where information and science weren't as yet advanced as today can make it easier to sustain such a plot. I think the same could happen in any rural area today or in places where superstition and lack of civilization still exists somehow. I think the author has done a good job in crating an environment and atmosphere that enhanced this sense of foreboding, that something would happen at some point.

Still, I thought the author would go on to a paranormal scenario, as if something weird - opposed to miraculous - would actually be happening to Anna. I even considered the possibility this would turn out to be like The Exorcist or something, but Anna maintained her quiet behavior and innocent personality, and I started to be intrigued by how she could keep the idea she wasn't eating. If one really dismisses the physical impossibility and the magical supernatural, then the situation had to be faked. I'm as curious about religious hoaxes through time as anyone, but if it was the case, how was it happening?

Well, when we do find how, I was already past the importance of this crazy thing, because by then the author had given enough clues and the reader could connect the dots of the very clear explanation that the reason behind all this was a lot more unfair, sad and maddening than anyone could imagine. I confess I felt such anger when it is revealed the actual explanation for this whole plot and in that moment I felt the author was actually quite clever with her methods in writing. I was not really expecting that, I thought this would be really about the use of religious fanaticism in the person of an innocent young girl, so clearly influenced and suggestible to act this way. 

As for the main characters, of course Lib was that cynical person who isn't religious and who doubts everything and even scorns a little how the Catholics portrayed here worshiped their religion. I'm Catholic myself but I also couldn't help but "judging" the Catholics here, by how extremist their notions were, although it is very likely realistic for that time. Part of me liked Lib, she did convey more advanced views on science, feminism, religion and so on, and it is easy to connect with her POV. She is rather secretive and I found the reason for that to be a bit silly, but, again, adequate to the late 19th century.

The end was a lot better than what I imagined, to be fair. Everything was pointing at the possibility Anna would die of starvation but I won't say how this ends, only that the way chosen was one I liked. I think, however, that some details weren't solved/dealt with in a very decisive manner and it felt as if some things weren't given the necessary closure. Nevertheless, this was a surprise I enjoyed and there were even some emotional scenes that I wasn't expecting. The pace was also rather slow at times and there were moments I wasn't too happy with Lib... but this was certainly and engrossing novel and I'm more convinced of reading something else by the author.
Grade: 8/10

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