With my severely limited knowledge about the Crimean War, I always pictured Florence Nightingale as a lonesome figure, stalking hospital corridors with only a glow of light for assistance. A little Googling told me she travelled to Constantinople in 1854 flanked by a 38-strong team of volunteer nurses. During the War, the Lady with the Lamp trained these women in her pioneering nursing practices. Those who returned to Britain in the conflict’s aftermath brought with them a certain repute. Emma Donoghue’s new novel, The Wonder, shines a light on one such “Nightingale”: Elizabeth “Lib” Wright, a young widow working in a hospital in London, who is singled out to travel to the Irish midlands on a well-paid but somewhat obscure mission.
It isn’t until Lib has been deposited in a pub/grocer’s/undertaker’s/inn in a village outside Athlone that the bizarre nature of her assignment is outlined by the local doctor. she has been summoned by a committee of “important men” on behalf of the O’Donnell family’s only daughter, Anna, who is “not exactly ill.”
Lib’s only duty will be to watch her for a period of two weeks, in a schedule of eight-hour shifts shared with a surly nun from the House of Mercy in Tullamore. Such surveillance is required because, since the day of her 11th birthday, Anna is said to have consumed nothing but a few sips of water.
For four months she has survived on what she describes as “manna from heaven”, and because she remains mysteriously well, the parish is beginning to attract attention. Pilgrims come from far and wide to catch a glimpse of the girl sustained by grace–a living, moving statue–and deposit coins in a collection box as they leave.
This is all happening in rural Ireland circa 1860, a place, we are told, the 19th century hasn’t reached, a country still in recovery from “that terrible failure of the potato.” The O’Donnells are simple people, their walls cemented with mud, their mattresses stuffed with straw. They keep shorthorn cattle; subsist on oatcakes, turnips and tiny, bony river fish; attempt to solve problems by means of votive masses and miraculous medals. This is a landscape steeped in “the enigmatic atmosphere of stone circles, ring forts or round barrows”, but all Lib sees is ugliness and morbidity: “flat fields striped with dark foliage. Sheets of reddish-brown peat…the occasional grey remains of a cottage, almost greened over.” And all she tastes is peat from the fire her food is cooked in, imagining that “if she did stay the full fortnight, she’d have consumed a good handful of boggy soil.”
The English nurse is scathing about the “shiftless, thriftless, hopeless, hapless” Irish, always brooding over past wrongs–“Their tracks going nowhere, their trees hung with putrid rags.” She “wonders” at many aspects of the O’Donnells’ simple life: their farming practices, religious devotions and superstitious rituals– a saucer of milk beneath the dresser to placate the “little folk”, a slice of bread carried in the pocket while walking.
Most of all, Lib wonders what is going on with Anna, who appears, indeed, to be swallowing nothing but “God’s own water.” One by one, Lib suspects everyone around her: is the nun in on the family’s plot? Is the priest manipulating the child in order to make money for the Church’s “shrine-building fund”? But as the watch grinds on, the doubt that has collected inside her like peat softens into compassion. When that happens, she is able to set aside her litany of Irish prejudices and face the truth: If she doesn’t do something to stop it, Anna O’Donnell is going to die in front of her.
In the stubborn zealotry of the committee that has hired Lib and Sister Michael (the local doctor suspects that Anna is turning into a kind of plant, capable of living on air), there is a touch of The Crucible, but I was more reminded of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. As in that book, each visit to the afflicted child is more terrifying. The difference, both ironic and awful, is that while Regan MacNeil is possessed by a demon, Anna O’Donnell is possessed by the suffocating dogma of the church in which she was raised. In both cases, we are introduced to a bright and loving child who is, essentially, being tortured to death. Anna’s plight and Lib’s efforts to save her (initially reluctant, ultimately frantic) make this book, flawed though it is in some respects, impossible to put down.
When we discover the reasons for Anna’s fast, it feels just a little too gothic and a little too convenient. I would have been happier to settle for the heavy cloak of religiosity that lay over Ireland in the 19th century (and even the 20th). It would have been quite enough without adding the dreaded Family Secret. The best historical fiction shows the past in close-up, letting us understand how, in spite of its foreignness, many of its issues are still with us. Donoghue’s ideas about the non-traditional family do this well; sometimes, a child is “a bird in the wrong nest.” The Wonder is built on surveillance and celebrity, disordered eating and the fetishizing of the child’s body, but keeps mainly to the surface, leaving the sense that it could have dug in harder here. Anna is an empty plate, a “blank page,” a fascination, but her portrayal leaves us hungry for more.
One doesn’t have to look any further than Wikipedia to find the case of Sarah Jacob, a Welsh girl who stopped eating on the occasion of her 10th birthday in 1867. The local vicar corroborated her claims, and for two years she attracted gift-bearing pilgrims until, in 1869, her family consented to have her monitored by professional medics. When Sarah began to show clear signs of starvation, her parents continued to insist that there was no need to intervene; that their daughter was miraculous. In a little over two weeks, she died. Mr and Mrs Jacob were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to hard labour in Swansea prison.
The first two-thirds of The Wonder sets a superb pace, but in the final third, it’s as if Ms Donoghue the novelist had had her pen taken off her by Ms Donoghue the scriptwriter (Oscar-nominated a couple of years ago for her Room). Heroes and villains begin to emerge; there’s even a love interest. The case of Anna O’Donnell comes to a close with significantly less poignancy and poetic justice than that of Sarah Jacob.
Fans of Ms Donoghue might find something to be interested here, but for everybody else, it’s just another entry in the ever-growing catalogue of mediocre suspense novels about children in pain.