The Wonder has been short-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize this year and I have been looking forward to reading it since meeting Emma Donoghue at the Grimsby Author series in September. I found the topic of fasting girls was unique and something that I had not known about before The Wonder. I enjoyed the historical setting 0f 1850s Ireland and as a nurse, found the references to Florence Nightingale interesting.
In the story, 11 year old, Anna O’Donnell has stopped eating. Her family and others attribute religious significance to the fact that she is living well despite her lack of intake. An English nurse (trained by Nightingale) was hired by a committee to ensure that she was not faking her abstinence from food. She took this role seriously until she realized that the child was truly starving. Tourists visited and a journalist chased the story to try and uncover a hoax.
The idea of fasting girls had been percolating with Donoghue for 20 years since she came
across the 1867 case of Sarah Jacobs who had succumbed to fasting in Wales. In The Wonder, Donoghue pondered whether the tension of the media and the nurse’s vigil made it worse by paying attention and becoming complicit in the experience of fasting. The author found 50 cases, typically teenage girls who felt that they were above their appetite, experiencing purity and not needing food and noted the similarities to the eating disorders of today. This was the longest genesis for any of her novels which she has built fiction around a historical case.
It is difficult to share any more details without spoiling so I will end my review here other than sharing that The Wonder slowly builds to a point where it is difficult to put down. I have purposely avoided reading reviews but did read some criticism of the ending. Without sharing enough to be a spoiler, I quite liked the twist at the end.
After reading Room, Slammerkin and The Wonder, I have found all of Emma Donoghue’s books to be unique with interesting topics. The similarity between the novels is that she has been inspired by real life and woven stories into vivid settings which keep the reader engaged with the predicaments of the main characters. Since Emma has described herself as a “one person factory line”, I am looking forward to her next novel.