One thing humans have failed to evolve past is the desire to gawp at people who are radically different from the norm. Dwarves used to belong to royal courts. Circus freaks travelled around the world. Leon Hyland spent a year in hiding to keep his difference a secret from the people around him. When he gets a call from Rhona Burke and hears her offer to join what is essentially a new-style freak show, Leon’s instincts tell him to run. Only her promises that he can back out at any time keep Leon on the hook. The Wonders, by Paddy O’Reilly, is the strange tale of the three members of Rhona’s show.
The Wonders begins with a corker of an opening line. Leon’s heart is weak and he started suffering frequent cardiac arrests. His first heart transplant failed. With nothing left to lose, Leon agrees to have an experimental mechanical heart implanted. A year’s worth of surgeries leave him with a hole straight through his torso and a visible metal heart. He reluctantly joins Rhona’s show as the Clockwork Man after learning that two other “freaks” have already signed on. Christos is a performance artist who has had metal wings that respond to his muscle commands. Kathryn had a bizarre reaction to an experimental gene therapy for Huntingdon’s Disease that left her covered with black wool, like a sheep’s.
Leon is our man on the scene, reporting on the experience of performing for the ultra-rich—which essentially amounts to high priced gawking. Slowly, this exceedingly shy man learns to be comfortable in his enhanced body and even find love. The journey is not easy. Protesters of all stripes turn up to heckle and torment the “Wonders.” Fundamentalist Christians call Kathryn demonic and Christos’ wings blasphemous. Kathryn is the target of hate mail and stalking. Advocates for the disabled accuse them of profiting to the detriment of disabled rights. Meanwhile, Rhona keeps the show rolling along and her public relations specialist keeps the media humming.
Kathryn, called Lady Lamb in the show, is the highlight of The Wonders. Leon serves well enough as a narrator, but he doesn’t have the fire that Kathryn does. I often wished that O’Reilly had let Kathryn tell this story. Kathryn’s arc takes her from poverty to cure to humiliation to uncomfortable stardom. She’s a broken woman, but the show, surprisingly, helps her regain herself and heal. I was much more interested in her than Leon’s tentative personal transformation. (This is a problem I’ve been encountering a lot lately.)
I had a quick look at reader responses to this book on GoodReads. Several readers remarked that this book “didn’t gel” for them or that there was something missing. I suspect its partially an issue with the narrator. All the really interesting things happen to other characters. It’s also an issue of O’Reilly raising more questions than he answers. I don’t have a problem with this. I love books that leave me with unanswerable questions that need to be pondered. Then again, the book doesn’t exactly linger over these vexed issues of disability, celebrity, and exploitation as Leon bumbles along. The Wonders, then, can probably read like an awkward blend of literary “idea” fiction and plot-driven genre fiction to some readers.
I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 10 March 2015.