In 1859, Lib Wright, an English nurse trained by Florence Nightingale herself, is tasked with an unsettling mission: watching over Anna O’Donnell, an 11-year-old girl in a small Irish village who, so it’s claimed, hasn’t ingested any nourishment in four months. While Anna doesn’t appear to be starving, neither is she blooming with health. Her devoutly religious mother acts proud of her seemingly miraculous restraint.
Believing this “extraordinary wonder” to be a lucrative scam, Lib determines to locate Anna’s secret food source and expose her as a fake. She has two weeks to do so. However, Anna, an unforgettable character, is a delightful, curious child who awakens Lib’s protective nature, increasingly so as Anna’s well-being deteriorates.
Donoghue excels at evoking the social and religious atmosphere that proves difficult for the secular-minded Lib to penetrate. Fervent Catholic piety intermingles with folk superstitions, and the confined setting of the O’Donnells’ meager cabin feels tangibly immediate.
The mystery about Anna forces readers to weigh every word for clues, while the creeping tension compels them to read faster, with a growing sense of urgency. Exploring the nature of faith and trust with heartrending intensity, Donoghue’s superb novel will leave few unaffected.
This starred review first appeared in Booklist's July issue and was their review of the day on Wednesday of this week. The Wonder will be published in September by Little, Brown (304pp, $27).
Some other notes:
These days Donoghue is best known for her novel Room, but my first experience reading her work was when I was assigned to review Frog Music for Booklist two years ago (you can read that review here). Both Frog Music and The Wonder fit the category of literary fiction yet also work very well as mysteries or thrillers (personally I'd love to see it nominated for a mystery award or two). The books have significant cross-genre appeal. The Wonder's premise is based on historical cases of "fasting girls" in Victorian-era Ireland and elsewhere. What do you think of the cover? It's uncomplicated, yet very effective in my opinion.