If Lib Wright had had the full details of her posting as a private nurse to Anna O’Donnell, she would not have taken the assignment. She would have packed up immediately and gone back to her hospital in England. But since she was already in Ireland (and since travel in 1859 was not easy), Lib decided to stay and be part of the two nurse team assigned to watch the girl, day and night, for two weeks. Lib and Sister Michael have been hired by a committee to determine if Anna has truly stopped eating. The Wonder, by Emma Donoghue, is based on the nineteenth century phenomena of “fasting girls” and the Catholic tradition of Anorexia mirabilis (the miracle of no longer needing to eat).
The committee paying Lib and Sister Michael have designed a test to find out if Anna’s anorexia is actually miraculous, or if the O’Donnell family were cheating somehow. Lib, trained by Florence Nightingale and a veteran nurse of the Crimean War, is deeply skeptical. The local doctor believes that Anna is evolving into a new variety of human who can live without food. Anna’s village priest and Sister Michael are willing to take the “miracle” at face value. People are traveling from far and wide to get a blessing from Anna or say a prayer with her. Meanwhile, Lib is making notes about the girl’s deteriorating condition; Anna is clearly suffering the effects of severe malnutrition.
Anna is very good at keeping secrets. When she speaks, Anna repeats quotes from the Bible or The Imitation of Christ or various prayers. Her answers to Lib’s questions frustrate the nurse no end. The narrative is a slow unraveling of the girl’s secrets and the story grows increasingly tense as Anna gets worse and worse. It’s clear she is dying and it seems like only Lib wants to save her. Everyone else wants to see Anna acclaimed as a miracle or exposed as a fraud.
The Wonder had me from the first chapter. Lib is a terrific character caught in a wrenching dilemma. It was heartbreaking to watch her metaphorically beat her head against the brick wall of Catholic belief and pseudoscience. Even though Anna’s story is outlandish, it’s based on actual history. It’s clear Donoghue did sterling research on Anorexia mirabilis, fasting girls, and post-famine Ireland—though the story never gets bogged down in exposition. I can’t say too much, but I will admit that the ending of this book almost had me in tears.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 20 September 2016.