Review: WONDER by Emma Donoghue

The Wonder

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.

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Review: SHADOW SPELL (Cousins O’Dwyer Trilogy #2) by Nora Roberts

Shadow Spell

If you’re like me, a longtime fan of Nora Roberts, it will be nearly impossible for you to not compare Cousins O’Dwyer series with her other (read: better) paranormal romance trilogies. Sadly, making such comparisons can end only badly for Shadow Spell. Much like The Dark Witch, it had a fairly predictable storyline and an average-at-best romance.

As I read Shadow Spell, I couldn’t help comparing it to one of Ms. Roberts’ older books in a similar setting, Tears of the Moon. I absolutely loved that book. Shadow Spell follows the same plot of friends falling in love with each other and the same Nora Roberts’ brand of easy Irish charm. The difference is that Connor and Meara lack the chemistry and genuine conflict that made me enjoy reading these stories. The protagonists have been friends their whole lives and, although they were each other’s first kiss, they never had any romantic feelings towards each other. Until, one fine day, the adrenaline rush from an encounter with an ancient evil sorcerer drives them into each other’s arms.

It was very hard for me to buy Connor and Meara’s transition from friends to lovers. The whole thing happened out of the blue and they were both very accepting of this drastic change in their dynamic. In contrast, Tears of the Moon was so great because of how genuinely shocked Shawn was over Brenna’s sexual interest in him. I mean, if the idea of becoming lovers was so easy for Connor and Meara, why hadn’t they done it already? They were both unattached adults with no overt issues to a relationship. The lack of conflict in their story just made me lose interest in it. Then, the whole thing just seems overly evident that the timing of their relationship is totally contrived to fill in the gap between Boyle and Iona’s and Fin and Branna’s stories.

The dream scenes when Connor meets his ancestor, Eamon, are some of my favorites. Family is the running theme throughout the story, something Cabhan will never understand, and watching those two come together to share ideas and memories is heartwarming. Other favorite scenes are those of the gang around the kitchen table spread with a meal lovingly prepared by Branna. They theorize, strategize, argue, laugh, and just be a family at that table. The teasing and playfulness they all share is wonderfully done.

The biggest plus I can give this book is that at least Connor and Meara were interesting characters. Conner is kind of charming and fun to read. Also, we got a little more interaction between Branna and Fin. Of the three, theirs is the story I actually want to read. They have some built-in tension to work through thanks to their past and Fin’s relation to Cabhan. I am holding out hope that Ms. Roberts makes the best out of that in the next book and doesn’t resolve things too easily.

I think one of the biggest complaints longtime fans will have with Shadow Spell is that it really is nothing new. It seems obvious that Ms. Roberts’ trilogies have gotten formulaic, which may be all that can be expected from someone writing two-hundred plus books in roughly the same category. This new trilogy is much like the Gallaghers of Ardmore and the Key trilogies, although probably not as well written. I am really holding out hope for the last book, Blood Magick, but they’re not high hopes. As for the first two books, maybe just skip them and read one of her better trilogies that will give you the same magical or Irish feel.

Review: “THE DARK WITCH” (Cousins O’Dwyer Trilogy #1) by Nora Roberts

Dark Witch

County Mayo, 1263. Sorcha, the Dark Witch, is being relentlessly pursued for her power by the evil sorcerer, Cabhan. Her husband is off to war, and she’s home with her children: Brannaugh, Eamon, and Teagan. Each of her children has the gift of magick as well, and a special animal guide in their dog, hawk, and horse respectively. She’ll go to any length to protect and defend them, and the magick within her. But in order to vanquish Cabhan, she must harness both her power and that of her children. Sadly, in banishing Cabhan, Sorcha dies, and the legacy of the three who comprise the Dark Witch lives on, as does Cabhan, who will stop at nothing to steal their power.

County Mayo, 2013. Iona Sheehan has sold all of her belongings and left her beloved Nan and neglectful parents to move to Ireland and find her destiny. She’s hoping to meet and make a connection with her cousins, Connor and Branna O’Dwyer. She knows the story of Sorcha and of the magick that lives within her, but she has no idea how to harness it. But she’s hoping that in finding her cousins, they’ll complete the circle of the Dark Witch and she’ll be able to learn to control the power within her.

Of course, Iona’s coming to Ireland revitalizes Cabhan. He wants her power and immediately identifies her as the weak link of the three. Iona must scramble to catch up with her cousins, who have known of their power and how to handle it all their lives. Branna immediately invites Iona to come and live with her and Connor, and to begin training for their fight against Cabhan. Iona readily accepts and finds a job at the local stables working for a man named Boyle McGrath. She had always been an exceptional rider, partly due to her mental connection with horses, but she did not count on falling for her new boss.

The horse, big and beautiful at easily sixteen hands, tested his rider with the occasional buck and dance, and even with the distance, she could see the fierce gleam in his eyes. His smoke gray coat showed some sweat, though the morning stayed cool – and his ears stayed stubbornly back.

But the man, big and beautiful as well, had his measure. Iona heard his voice, the challenge in it if not the words, as he kept the horse at a trot.

And something in her, just at the sounds of his voice, stirred. Nerves, excitement, she told herself, because the man held her happiness in his hands.

But as they drew closer, the stir grew to a flutter. Attraction struck her double blows – heart and belly as, oh, he really was as magnificent as the horse. And every single bit as appealing to her.

Of course, the horse, Alastair, is the modern incarnation of Iona’s guide for her quest. The connection between Boyle and Iona is every bit as strong. However, Boyle, aware of the impropriety of getting involved with someone he just hired, much less a witch, is reluctant to acknowledge their attraction. That being said, he can’t stop himself from sweeping her off her feet and into his arms. Oh well, he’s cranky about it. As the two of them fall for each other, Cabhan’s power grows and the cousins, along with their friends, must join together to again try to vanquish him before he steals the power of the Dark Witch.

It’s been a long time since I read this book for the first time. Paranormal romances are generally my least favourite subgenre, but this book had three things I’ve always loved: Nora Roberts, Ireland, and a strong cast. Her Born In and Sign of the Seven trilogies are some of my favourites, so this series was easy to fall for. The book sets up an interesting mythology by focussing the first three chapters on Sorcha and her battle against Cabhan, raising the stakes and investing the reader in the storyline. By the time we arrive in present-day Ireland, I found myself engrossed in the urgency of the fight to protect the Dark Witch’s power.

I really liked Iona and I’ve always been a fan of Ms. Roberts’ cranky heroes. However, their characterization doesn’t necessarily cover any new ground. That being said, the description of County Mayo is so vividly drawn that you can almost smell the peat moss burning. As always, the relationships between the friends, cousins, and (obviously potential) lovers is supremely entertaining. I also really enjoyed the fact then when Boyle and Iona hit a speed bump (and it’s a pretty legit one, for a change), they handle it in a mature and realistic manner. The final battle in the book is obviously just laying the groundwork for the next two books so I won’t hold that against the story.

To be honest, I’m not completely sure if I enjoyed this book because it was written by Nora Roberts, or because it was a really good. Either way, it got me out of my reviewing slump.

Review: “Tender” by Belinda McKeon

Tender

Disclaimer: This super-duper long entry was supposed to be posted exactly a month ago to mark a very special occasion. Well, better late than never. This one’s for you, D. I am certain you would have roared and called me Cathy after reading this. 🙂

What happens in the heart simply happens.” So writes Ted Hughes in his collection Birthday Letters, a series of poems addressed to his late wife Sylvia Plath. Of course, Hughes’ use of “simple” here is misleading–the relationship between the two poets was famously volatile. Belinda McKeon’s second novel, Tender, which features Hughes’ line, also devotes itself to a volatile relationship. And though Hughes seems to insist that matters of the heart “simply happen”, McKeon reminds us that these affairs are never, in fact, simple in the slightest.

The protagonist of Tender is a young woman named Catherine Reilly, who has left the parochial confines of County Longford to study English and art history at Trinity College, Dublin. Up in the capital, she rents a room in a flat with two girls. The room was previously occupied by the girls’ school friend, James, who has since moved to Berlin to work as a photographer’s assistant. However, James is now back from Germany, and Catherine is intrigued to finally encounter the enigmatic character about whom she has heard so much.

That was another thing Amy and Lorraine had said about him: that he talked. Talked and talked; there was nobody else like him for that, Amy had said, meaning it as a good thing, and Catherine had found herself quite looking forward to meeting him, then, this talkative James. To see what that looked like: a boy who could talk.

This anticipation is infectious, building in the reader as well as Catherine, while another, darker emotion also mounts. Catherine admits to a certain sense of anxiety: she is “[w]ary not so much of him, but of herself–how would she handle this? What account would she give of herself? What would he think of her, when she was forced to actually talk to him?” This wariness, of course, is entirely justified.

The pair seems to hit it off right from the start. As expected, there is a lot of talking — much like Hughes in Birthday Letters, McKeon explores love through its relationship to language. Catherine and James form an instant intimacy that is rooted in banter and quotations and codes of speech: “Already they had their own way of talking, their private phrases, their language.” Catherine is both delighted and confused by this intimacy, struggling to understand what exactly is blooming between them, but James puts any romantic intentions to rest when he tells her that he is gay. This revelation brings relief, as well as a complex range of other emotions, from “inadequacy” and “childishness,” to “gratitude,” “gladness,” and even “pride.” Matters of the heart may just happen, but once again, they are far from simple.

With the terms of their relationship clarified, the pair’s friendship blossoms, particularly in the linguistic realm. While James is back in Germany, they write letters almost every day. When he returns, James serves as an interlocutor through which Catherine can articulate her impressions of the world around her. She even frames her inner thoughts and perceptions just as she would their correspondence: “it was James she was addressing,” she realises. “James to whom she was writing an imaginary, long juicy letter.”

McKeon’s ability to capture the intricacies of this relationship is startling. She carefully portrays every nuance of their platonic but “rich, layered affection.” The power dynamic shifts back and forth, but the sheer energy of the bond never wavers: Catherine’s life is now a “teeming, booming, multiplying thing.” Eventually, however, the intensity starts to become too much, laced more and more with traces of obsession and deceit. Even Catherine struggles to find the right words–the right talk to articulate exactly how their bond is spiralling out of control:

What was this? What was this feeling? What were these feelings, because there was more than one of them: there were several of them, and it was by them, now, that she was crowded; it was by them, now, that she was feeling cornered, feeling overwhelmed.

She begins to experience a kind of “madness” as their pair careers towards very dangerous emotional territory.

I first read McKeon in 2011 when her debut novel, Solace, was published to a host of awards. The protagonist that time around was a Mark Casey, who also leaves the confines of parochial Longford behind to pursue his studies in Trinity College, Dublin. Here, Mark negotiates the progress between tradition and progress, between staying loyal to his rural family and engaging with his urban academic life, as signs of a changing Ireland unfold all around him. In Tender, Catherine undergoes a similar coming of age and experiences a similar tension between the familiar and the new.

The specific context of Catherine’s story is all the more pertinent given that James comes out only four years after the decriminalization of homosexuality in Ireland. Even then, Catherine admits to never having actually met someone who is openly gay: “Nobody real. Nobody Irish, really other than David Norris, the senator who had fought for the law to be changed, and it was not as if Catherine actually knew him.” So she admits to the “novelty”  of the fact and the sense of being a “tourist” in James’s presence, yet another emotion to add to the list. That said, she isn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that, legal or otherwise, James’s news still presents great difficulty. Despite his family being, in Catherine’s eyes, very “modern,” they react poorly to his coming out, while her own parents try to forbid her from cavorting with such company. It is significant that it wasn’t until 2015, the year Tender was published in Ireland, that same-sex marriage was finally legalised there,  revealing the ongoing challenges inherent in being gay in a predominantly Catholic country.

Despite its portrait of coming of age in a changing Ireland and its juxtaposition of urban and rural life, Tender is, in fact, a very different book from its predecessor. Solace was a beautiful, delicate novel in which much was left unsaid. Mark and his father only communicated in “an established rhythm” where “[t]here were set subjects, set responses; a set way to move your head, to shrug your shoulders, to turn slowly towards the door and keep an eye on whoever was coming in.” Outside of this routine, “[t]here were things that seemed unsayable; things that seemed impossible to push over the surface of thought.” Indeed, so much of the novel’s power lay in the charged silence, which permeated every page. In many ways, this felt like the continuation of a certain Irish literary tradition–a more “established rhythm,” to put it in McKeon’s terms. In the last 50 years, Ireland has produced a long list of novelists who are masters of stillness and restraint, from John McGahern to Sebastian Barry to McKeon’s own mentor, the wonderful Colm Tóibín.

Tender, however, is a much louder novel, allowing us to be almost entirely privy to the unsayable. For one, James’s bluntness captivates Catherine from the start, as she marvels at “[t]he directness. The openness” of his personality: “He was saying aloud the stuff that , Catherine now realised,  she had always thought you were meant to keep silent.” Even beyond what is said aloud, we spend the majority of the novel deep inside Catherine’s head, where her emotions and neuroses breed and multiply. Just as she “actually squirmed, listening to [James],” so we become increasingly uncomfortable in the presence of her manic energy, her insecurities, her melodramatic trains of thought. Even though Catherine does her best to present a calm and collected outward persona, inwardly her obsession is taking over, as we witness the full extent of her troubled and twisted mind.

This tension between the outward and inward versions of the self is also explored in James’s photography. Early on, he admires the mug shot photographs on the Trinity students’ ID cards, praising “[t]he way people are caught in them. Before they have a chance to arrange their expressions the way people always want to when you photograph them.” This “truthful” appearance is something he later strives to capture in his own work, creating images which are “stark and strange and disorienting […] people being caught in their unguarded moments, accessed in the pureness and vulnerability of who they really were.” These portraits resonate with McKeon’s portrait of Catherine, which may not be particularly flattering, but is certainly unflinching in its attempt to capture the “pureness and vulnerability” of her character.

This attempt not only challenges the boundaries of how deeply a reader may be invited to immerse themselves in a character’s head, but it also pushes formal boundaries. The novel’s third section, ironically titled “ROMANCE,” is composed of a series of brief and breathless one-line paragraphs, a textual reenactment of Catherine’s frantic headspace. These paragraphs range from depressed truisms–“Nothing that was not him was anything she could see“–to unanswered questions–“what, though, was actually wrong with her?” Elsewhere they embed themselves in parentheses, adding another layer of consciousness to the cacophony inside Catherine’s head: “(She could not work out anything about how things were meant to be.)” We also find extracts from the corny horoscopes Catherine writes as part of her summer job, as well as a number of lines of Hughes’s poetry: “I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.

These poems hail from the aforementioned Birthday Letters, which James buys for Catherine early on in the novel to help her write an essay about Plath. The epistolary form of Hughes’s book also recalls the letters which James and Catherine exchange—both of the real and the imagined variety. Furthermore, while Hughes’s writing is variously described by McKeon’s characters as “melodramatic,” “insane,” and “intense,” so too is McKeon’s own writing, particularly in the “ROMANCE” section. The text itself is unabashed in the discomfort it causes, as we watch Catherine’s anxiety manically escalate.

This inclusion of a particularly resonant literary figure is a trope McKeon has used before. In Solace, Mark is writing a PhD dissertation on the 19th century author Maria Edgeworth, whose Longford home was mere moments from his own. Edgeworth’s dedication to education, as well as her interest in the tension between the local and the cosmopolitan, echo the novel’s broader themes, even if Mark cannot seem to figure out what critical angle he plans to take. What he does seem sure of is that he wants to research Edgeworth’s “self-reflexivity and autobiographical interpolation, and about how she used these things to play with what people expected fiction to be.”

This idea of “self-reflexivity and autobiographical interpolation” is crucial in both of McKeon’s novels. Not only does she draw on the works and lives of canonic literary figures, but she also draws on her own life. Catherine’s journey from Longford to Trinity; her journalism work at Trinity News; her interviews with authors and increasing involvement in the Dublin literary scene are all taken directly from McKeon’s experience. Indeed, in a recent interview McKeon termed the novel “autobiographical at its core.” And yet, she insists she is not interested in any explicit linking of her life and that of her characters. Fiction isn’t so straightforward. “There are different layers of the autobiographical and the imagined,” she says. “The boundary between what really happens in a life and what you imagine is much more fluid than I used to think — and I’ve become much more interested in writing which explores that.” It is no wonder that Catherine tells us she wants to write her Hughes essay about something to do with “autobiography, and how it never showed itself in the work in the lazy way that readers expected it to.”

McKeon obviously has fun with this blurring of fiction and reality, not least since Catherine—not Belinda—is in fact McKeon’s own given name. And yet, even in the novel this has different layers of its own. Catherine is alternately known as “Reilly,” “Citóg,” “Poetess,” and “Muriel”; she routinely switches between personas, depending on the person she is with. Once she even thinks of doing something, only to remember “she was not that version of herself.” But we, the reader, are privy to all of the versions—the real and the imagined, the internal and the external. McKeon paints a rich and painfully honest portrait, so bursting with life and intelligence that it reverberates in the mind long after the novel has come to a heartbreaking end.