Imagine yourself arriving in a forlorn village, right at the heart of Ireland, that barely survived the great famine in the second halve of the 19th century. To really settle the mood, the driver of the horse cart you’re in speaks in an unintelligible accent and it drizzles. You are not there to feed the hungry, but you are there to make sure Anna, a girl of eleven years, does not eat for two weeks. It is true that the girl has not been eating for four months already, but still, as a nurse this goes right against all your principles.
This is the situation Mrs. Wright, or Lib later in the book, finds herself in at the start of the book. She is hired by a group of men from the village to watch Anna, who believes she is fed manna from heaven and therefore does not have to eat. This is proclaimed a wonder by many people who visit to worship with her. It is Lib’s job to confirm whether Anna’s fast is truly a wonder or a fraud. She watches over Anna 24/7, alternating shifts with an Irish nun. The rest of the book consist of Lib warding of curious visitors and trying to figure out how the girl is fed, because she is not a believer. Her investigation is thwarted by almost everyone from the village, but especially by the men who hired her. Her investigations become desperate when Lib starts to believe Anna really is in danger.
This is a book about people and why they do the things they do. There are many themes, such as religion, superstition, feminism, nursing and grief, and Donoghue weaves them together nicely. This is a difficult book to talk about without giving too much away, because motifs and mysteries are unfolded very slowly, which allows the reader to figure them out for herself while reading. I do not want to ruin that experience for anyone. This is the first book from Donoghue I’ve read. I am not sure if I will read another one though, because it took me quite a while to get into it. It did help with this book that I really liked the subject matter.
For me this felt like a very strange book in the beginning. It took me quite a while to get into it, because of Emma’s writing style. She does not explain that much at the beginning, which makes it difficult to grasp the kind of book you’re reading. I expected an easier book, so I probably did not pick up on all the hints immediately, which did not improve my enjoyment for about the first fifty pages. Once I was fully engrossed in the book that style of writing became commendable, because all events unfold at a natural pace. Another nice thing about the book it that it is written from a single character’s point of view. This causes that what happens is as much a mystery for you as the reader as for Lib, the protagonist. The story unfolds itself as a combination between a psychological drama and a thriller while Lib attempts to find out who is feeding Anna. The development of Lib’s psyche is really fascinating to read because she goes from sceptical, to almost believer to advocate regarding Anna’s health. As a bonus in this book the reader is also a witness of Irish religious life in the latter half of the 19th century.
The thing that fascinated me the most in this book where the characters and how they behaved towards each other, especially the dynamics between Lib and a visiting journalist, William Byrne. William Bryne visits the small village to report about the alleged wonder. They come from completely different lives, and still they manage to somehow form a friendship. Also Rosaleen, Anna’s mother her cold attitude towards Anna makes a lot of sense when later events unfold. In general Lib is very much a stranger in the Irish village, something she notices daily when interacting with everyone she meets. All these nuances between character’s connections make me believe Donoghue thought about it a lot, which is important for a book so strongly driver by the interaction between the people in it.
The one thing I want to applaud Emma Donoghue the most for in this book was her handling of religion. Usually, religion is used as a quirk for bad guys who frown upon sex, or it is portrayed as something inherently backwards and illogical and as something no logical character could led herself in with. In this book Donoghue found an excellent way to talk about the different ways in which people can believe. There is Lib the heretic; the pragmatic, no-nonsense journalist; Rosaleen, Anna’s mother, who is pragmatic and action oriented; the nun is above all obedient; the maid is superstitious and as last Anna, who is pious and sincere. The diversity of characters, and the fact that people’s religious actions are only discredited from a character’s point of view, makes this one of the sincerest portrayals of religion in pop culture I have read. I am very curious what people with the religious catholic upbringing, as is portrayed in the book, would think about it.
The only thing I can not talk about unfortunately is the ending. But be assured that the mystery will keep you engrossed until almost the end. Fortunately, by then you’ll have other more important worries to keep yourself occupied with the book. I guess I just want to conclude that the ending of this book was totally bad-ass and even if you are not liking the book, makes it worth the read.
Maria award for a fair portrayal of religion, making this a religion inspired suspense novel
Emma Donoghue, the wonder (New York, 2016)
Bella G. Bear