In contemporary Western society, the concept of female self-starvation is something that most of us would have encountered, whether it is through popular diet plans that make claims on how to achieve the ideal svelte figure broadcast by fashionable celebrities, to the other end of the spectrum, where girls and women seek to self-regulate their bodies through practices such as bulimia and anorexia nervosa. While this idea may seem like a fairly contemporary practices, arising from modern cultural norms on size and weight, the truth is that female self-starvation has a much longer history, dating back to the middle ages, where the practice of “anorexia mirabilis” was a legitimate form of self-expression for women and girls wanting to show their communion with God. Reputedly practised by female saints of the time, a miraculous lack of appetite and consumption went hand in hand with other ascetic practices.
In her new novel, The Wonder, Emma Donoghue brings to life a fictional case of one of these “miraculous maids”, eleven-year-old Anna O’Donnell, who has chosen to abstain from food for several months. The novel is set in a small village in Ireland in the 1850’s, which seems full of pointless, Catholic superstitions and backwardness to Lib Wright, a Florence Nightingale trained nurse, who arrives to take on the job of monitoring Anna to see whether she really is surviving without any food. Alongside another nurse, a Catholic nun, the very sceptical Lib has been hired by the village committee to determine the truth of the story, but soon finds that all her pre-defined judgments of scientific, medical merit as well as her personal beliefs are challenged by the very unusual, young fasting girl. Surrounded by religious believers, including Anna’s family, priest and the visitors who arrive in droves to deify Anna, Lib struggles to stay neutral and objective. When sceptical journalist William Byrne, arrives in the village to also investigate the truth about “the wonder” Lib is unsure whether she has finally found an ally, or yet another potential deceiver.
The Wonder is full of rich and authentic characterisations, in particular that of Lib and Anna. The slowly evolving relationship between nurse and child is subtly fraught with the undertones of the issues around the central act of self-starvation. Pitted against the mysteries of life and nature, which seem abundantly clear to the child, the ideologies of science and medicine are portrayed as something that saved Lib’s life, at a time when she needed saving, yet at the same time are the very things which could be hastening Anna’s self-imposed demise. The notion of fasting as a means of taking control, and a way to show the strength of the spirit versus the body, flavour the narrative as we see Anna from Lib’s ever changing point of view. The psychological complexities of the characters and their roles – including Anna’s family who seem unable to intervene in their child’s fate – are skilfully explored by the author.
There is an abundant sense of mystery throughout the plot, which takes the reader along at every turn. This is not a novel that needs to be compared to Donohue’s very successful, previous novel Room, as it holds its own in a unique and powerful way. This novel contains so much richness that it is another type of “page turner” – a perfect read for the upcoming holidays, where a bit of religious mystery might just be what is needed.