The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

I loved Donoghue’s first book Room and so came to this one with eager expectations.

I was not disappointed.

Room is such a modern book, a book of and for our time, dealing with a contemporary issue which is hard to look at without squinting. It is raw and compelling and hyper-real. The Wonder has the same distilled quality; details are boiled down to their essentials. Donoghue wrings every last scent and texture from everything so that reading her books is like living in them. But this book is set thousands of miles and a century away from Room, in mid-19th century rural Ireland. Living is hard there, communities small and insular, people uneducated and superstitious. Religion blinds -or balms - the people; it depends upon your point of view. Making such a leap in subject-matter, setting and time frame is no easy manoeuvre but Donoghue manages it without a slip. Her idiom, so American in Room is here - apart from one glaring slip - so delightfully, naturally, British you would believe her to be a native British English speaker.

Lib, an English, Nightingale-trained nurse, is sent to monitor the health of a young girl who claims not to have eaten in four months. Her remit is to determine whether Anna - the child - is a miracle-in-the-making or a fraud. The nurse is aided in her task by another nurse, a nun, who, Lib feels, will hardly be disinterested in her observations. Neither is Lib, of course. She is an atheist with no time for religious wonders; she expects to uncover the secret of the girl’s apparently miraculous survival on no food in the first twenty four hours.

You would expect the faith of the nun and the scepticism of the English nurse to be pitted over the quiet, wasted form of an eleven year old child but in fact Anna confounds them both.

The world of the book shrinks down to the slovenly cabin where the girl’s family lives and, within that, the tiny cell of a room where Anna and Lib spend their days. The rough-hewn bed and scratchy sheets, a single chair, a chest of drawers and Anna’s casket of devotional treasures are all the room has to offer, and Lib strips them all down meticulously looking for hidey holes and loose floorboards - anywhere that food might be cached.

The story plays itself out in eight hour shifts as Lib watches Anna, minutely observing the physiological signs of her physical health and trying to guess at the psychological mind-set of this patient, resilient, pious little girl. What kind of religious piety can feed a soul but threaten a body with starvation? This turns out to be the central conundrum of the book. As Lib comes to care for Anna she becomes more and more desperate to break through the child’s adamantine determination to refuse food. Medical evidence, anger, reason and emotional appeal all fail. The girl has a scripture for every question, a prayer for every argument, a blind, indoctrinated - or spiritually inspired - unshakable belief.

No spoilers here - you will have to read the book to find how - or if - the mystery of Anna’s fast is broken and whether she is saved. And what does being ‘saved’ really mean? ‘Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it ,’ Anna would say, through her parched, cracked lips.

This book will make you think about faith, about goodness, and about what it means to live. It will ask you if you believe in anything so strongly that you’d die for it. It raises issues about our right to choose the place and time of our passing. It will make you wonder at the power of faith to sustain us through the valley of the shadow of death, or, it will cause you to question the trustfulness of those who have ‘the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.’