Review published on May 11, 2016.
A nurse investigates the case of an Irish girl surviving without food for months: miracle or hoax?
Lib Wright, a widowed nurse who trained under Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, is summoned to a small town in the Irish Midlands in August 1859. For two weeks of this hot summer, she will be a key witness in a peculiar case. An eleven-year-old girl named Anna O’Donnell has ingested nothing but water in over four months but isn’t bedridden or obviously ill. Her doctor intends to write up the story for the Irish Times, but first he wants two independent observers – Lib and Sister Michael, a nun – to mount a round-a-clock vigil for two weeks to prove that this is no hoax.
From the start Lib is biased against the more seemingly irrational aspects of Catholicism. “I believe in what I can see,” she tells Mr Byrne, a journalist who comes to report on the case, so the O’Donnells’ extreme piety and odd country superstitions about fairies (“the little people”) exasperate her. “It does sometimes seem as if the nineteenth century hasn’t reached this part of the world yet,” she marvels. All the same, Anna is a clever and engaging child, enthusiastically solving Lib’s riddles and trying to guess her first name. Yet she also obsessively chants prayers, sure her petitions and fasting can rescue her late brother’s soul from Purgatory.
Approaching her task like a scientist, Lib conducts a full physical examination at the start of every shift and carefully searches Anna’s room in the O’Donnells’ thatch cabin for any hiding places. Anna has been attracting visitors who treat her like a holy relic, but Lib refuses them entry – there can be no outsiders who might somehow pass Anna food. As the days pass, Lib develops a real affection for the girl, which makes it all the more distressing when her scientific measurements reveal that Anna is fading fast. Suddenly the priority becomes not proving fraud but saving a life.
The novel draws on about 50 historical cases of “Fasting Girls” that occurred in Europe and North America in the 16th to 20th centuries. It sets up a particularly effective contrast between medicine and superstition, that “fug of the ineffable” that so troubles Lib. It also reveals the disparity between men’s and women’s opinions in the mid-nineteenth century: Lib’s observations and diagnoses hold no weight compared to a qualified male doctor’s.
Donoghue writes convincing and vivid historical fiction, peppering the text with small details about everything from literature (during her vigils Lib reads Adam Bede and A Tale of Two Cities, both of which were published in 1859) to technology (some men from the paper come to take Anna’s daguerreotype, a relatively recent invention). The Irish customs and speech feel authentic, and Donoghue’s wordplay surrounding words like “watch” and “fast” adds extra layers of meaning.
This is the fifth book I’ve read by Donoghue, and it’s by far my favourite. With the two-week time limit and the fact that most scenes take place in the cabin – with just a handful set in other village locales like the bog and the pub where Lib stays – this has something of the flavour of a locked-room mystery. I devoured the novel eagerly over just a few days. The absorbing plot divulges some juicy secrets about Lib as well as about the O’Donnells, and it all leads to a conclusion I never would have expected. No spoilers, though – I’ll let you find out for yourself when this wonderful work of fiction comes out in September.
The Wonder by Emma Donoghue
Picador 9781509818389 Sept 2016
MIKE ON: Quality control in publishing