The Wonder By Emma Donoghue, begins with a gloomy portrayal of a beautiful country, Ireland. Having visited the vibrant island a few months back, I was disconcerted to read Donoghue’s lacklustre words. What a contrast I thought to myself. Was the author, I speculated, giving credence to the main character Lib, by reflecting a British nurse’s prejudices towards the Irish? As I read further it struck me, that Emma Donoghue was employing the Gothic style of writing. The term Gothic in itself is intriguing, isn’t it? Gothic Literature refers to the style of writing that employs elements of fear, horror, gloom, death as well as romantic elements, such as nature, individuality, and very high emotion. These emotions can include fear and suspense. Set just a few years after the an Gorta Mór, The Irish Potato Famine (1845 – 1849) a period of mass starvation and disease, the famine remains a formidable character in the background of the story.
With hunger a dominant theme in the book, the story revolves around 11 year-old Anna O’ Donnell who has refused to eat for four months and still survives. The devout believe this is a miracle and flock to the O’ Donnell’s cabin to kiss the hems of this living saint. The cynical believe it is a hoax. So how is the dilemma to be resolved? A committee is formed comprising the influential of the village: a landlord, a doctor who believes Anna is his greatest scientific discovery, a priest who wishes to protect his church at all costs and a tavern owner. Each one has their own vested interest in proving the child is indeed a miracle. Anna needs to be observed and a period of two weeks is decided upon where the girl will be watched every waking and sleeping moment. But who would do the watching? Two nurses are hired – one from England, a pupil of Florence Nightingale, the other a Sister of Mercy, who has devoted her entire life in service to the sick. One nurse is an Irish Catholic nun and the other a British woman of science. What could be a more impartial watch.
I know a book is good when I read and get sucked into it. When I can see the characters as if they were walking parallelly with me. As I read The Wonder, I could feel the coldness of the rain and roughness of Lib’s tweed nursing uniform. The starched rustle of Sister Michael’s habit sent a my nerves jangling. I fell for the handsome William Byrne, so jaded by his profession who recognised the truth of Anna’s condition quicker than the trained nurse, Lib. I recoiled from the squalor of the O’Donnell’s cabin just like Lib and wanted to straighten out the sheets of Anna’s bed with her. I could taste the peat in the oatcakes served to Lib and identify with the guilt of eating in front of a child who had not eaten for months. While I could understand the love of a father in Malachy O’Donnell, yet like Lib not reconcile to his dumb acceptance. As a mother I could not even begin to comprehend the character of Rosaleen O’ Donnell. I felt sorry for the slavey, Kitty who collapsed every night onto the hearth. But most of all I could relate to Lib’s scepticism, her determined pursuit to expose the fraud and then her horror at the unimagined truth she uncovers. The revelations at the end are not really surprising, yet had me gasping in horror.
This book reveals the power of religion over a devout child misguided by the adults who should have been protecting her. Zealotry is not something I understand. Not overtly devout, I found Anna’s faith difficult to connect to. With all kinds of deafening religious debate blocking out all sounds of sensible discourse these days, I found in this book the dangers of being ‘God fearing’. When the tenets of religion provoke only a sense of fear in the minds of children, there is something very wrong with what is being preached. Saying that, I cannot help but admire the power of religion over individuals. Or is it the power of the so-called upholders of religion – the preachers screaming from the pulpits? This is not a comment on one, but on religion at large. Today we see a world where children are used as suicide bombers, where in the name of saving cows they are lynched, and mobs attack a bus full of school children in the name of upholding the honour of a fictitious historical character. Which leads me to ask that one question which I’m sure all of us ask: When will they, the preachers, realise that they have an obligation to the people for whom they have made their bond of reverence?
I am part of three Bookclubs, I read The Wonder with one of them. A question asked there had me stumped: Who was or what was The Wonder in this book? I cannot find the answer, as I debate with myself: Was is Anna, the girl who did not eat? Was it Rosaleen O’Donnell’s style of mothering? Was it Lib’s commitment to her patient? Was it a priest’s need to protect his church at all costs? Was it a Doctor’s need to leave a legacy? Was it the acrid aftertaste left by the author’s skill that made me reluctant to write this review? What was it that overwhelmed me, I do not know. I hope, dear reader, you can answer this one for me.
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