You may know Irish Canadian author Emma Donoghue by the fame she has gained from her 2010 novel Room, and its film adaptation. I must admit, I have neither watched the film, nor read the book. However, when it came to reading Donoghue’s ninth novel, The Wonder, which was published this year, I had a hard time putting it down.
I would not categorize this book as a great summer read, but reading it in late November, as the darkness is enveloping my northern home, seemed somehow appropriate. The topic is dark: a child refusing food in the name of God. Is it a religious miracle or a misguided hoax by the blindly religious?
The book starts out as the lead character, a nurse who has been hired to observe the child and verify or debunk the miracle of the child surviving without food, is traveling to her assignment. It begins in a descriptive way, attending to each detail of scene and thought in a way that reminded me, as an only occasional reader of fiction, of the work of Charles Dickens:
“A woman in a filthy frilled cap was stationed on the verge, a knot of children in the hedge behind her. The rattle of the cart brought them forward with hands cupped high as if to catch the rain. Lib looked away, awkward.
“‘The hungry season,’ muttered the driver.”
For the first few pages I was finding it to be a little much. But then it sucked me in. One part philosophical discourse, one part historical novel, one part suspenseful thriller, all written and woven together beautifully.
I also don’t usually read thrillers. The last one I took on was Stephen King’s The Shining – and I didn’t make it to the end of chapter four. My nightmares were keeping me awake.
Donoghue is gentler with The Wonder than Stephen King was with The Shining. She gives lots of time to get to know her main character, Mrs. Elizabeth “Lib” Wright, the young fasting child Anna, and the rest of the residents of this small 1850s Irish town. It is as the story starts drawing to a close that I began to feel the anxiety that a novel with true tension brings, and yes, I got some nightmares as I was finishing the book.
Emma Donoghue is an expert writer, a discovery for me, not to the rest of the world. She was born in Ireland, and lived in England for many years before moving to Canada. She has written for theatre, radio drama and literary history, and has had more than 13 other books published prior to the release of The Wonder, in September.
Her seventh novel, Room, won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Commonwealth Prize (Canada and Caribbean) and was short listed for the Man Booker and Orange Prizes. It sold over two million copies and the film adaptation won the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival People’s Choice Award and was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Writing/Adapted Screenplay.
The Wonder is a complex study of the period it is set in, and certainly worth the time to read.