This is a spoiler free review!
It’s 1859, and English nurse Lib Wright takes on a mysterious case in rural Ireland. She’s assigned a devout little girl, Anna, who claims to be living without food, under God’s will. Lib’s job is to watch the girl at all hours and report to a committee if she is sneaking food or not. Lib arrives expecting to catch the girl sneaking food within a matter of hours. But as Lib becomes more involved in the girl’s life she begins to see that this religious family is far from what it seems.
I picked this book up in the $1 section of the Strand when I was living in New York. I haven’t read Donoghue’s wildly successful book, Room, but I both love and am horrified by the movie. I found myself picking up the British edition of The Wonder when I was studying publishing in Oxford, England after college. It has one of those semi-vague descriptions that somehow is totally intriguing. I’ve had this book on my radar for a while. I was excited to also read an Irish author for the first time.
I think good historical novels are such an accomplishment, and this one captures religious tension between Catholics and Protestants, as well as the cultural differences and prejudices between the English and Irish. One of the biggest endeavors this book takes on is exposing hypocrisy in religion and and warning against the danger of extremism. The protagonist, Lib, does not identify with any faith or God herself, which alienates her, but also often allows her to act as one of the only characters to think and see clearly. As a nurse, she also represents science and rational thought.
This book doesn’t portray Catholics in good light, to say the least. Anna’s family is devout to the point of desiring sainthood over the health and life of their own daughter. Though Donahue exposes the dangers of religious extremism, she doesn’t completely criticize against religion as a whole. Anna herself becomes a dear friend to Lib, who has never allowed herself intimacy with a patient before. Lib recognizes and admires Anna’s good character and extreme bravery and strength. Lib’s love interest, Byrne, identifies as a deeply religious man, who is still able to see the dire consequences of the family’s extremist behavior. These two good characters prove that Donoghue does not condemn all faith as a whole, which I appreciate.
Donoghue also scrutinizes men in positions of power. Both the town’s head doctor and the priest are exposed as self-serving and using Anna’s publicity for their own means. They both are privy to ghastly and private information concerning Anna’s physical health that they conceal for the sake of town peace.
Another overarching theme is the question of if a mother/parent always has the child’s best interest at heart.
One of the things I love about The Wonder is that it kept me guessing up until the end. I didn’t think Lib’s own backstory is as compelling as it could have been, and it’s also easy to guess from the beginning. This book is so unique, and I would recommend it for a suspenseful, intelligent, and atmospheric read.
VERDICT: 4 out of 5 books