Should you want to know how The Wonder compares to Emma Donoghue’s previous hit Room, I’d say there’s no comparison—The Wonder is worlds better, & not just because we don’t have to endure listening to a 5 year old. No question for me that The Wonder is the historical of the year. Before reading it, I made sure to swot up the real story behind Emma Donoghue’s novel, Sian Busby’s A Wonderful Little Girl: The True Story of Sarah Jacob, the Welsh Fasting Girl. Emma Donoghue has moved her tale one decade earlier & transferred the location from Wales to Ireland, but as with the historical Sarah Jacob, we have a committee of notables established to investigate the veracity of the remarkable tale of a little girl who seemingly lives on air, nurses hired to observe her round the clock to insure no surreptitious taking of nourishment, & the involvement of the nationalist press. In English eyes, both the Welsh & the Irish were regarded habitual scoundrels & liars. The change in location requires as well a change in religions. Sarah Jacob’s family were mostly chapel, tho’ the principal clergyman involved was Anglican. In the wonder, Anna O’Donnell & all the other characters are Roman Catholic, except for our main character the nurse Liv Wright, an Englishwoman of very sceptical opinions. In , Catholicism provides the principal motivation for most of the characters as it exerts its baleful force impelling this 11 year old girl’s fast unto death with her parents & most of the local Catholics seemingly cheering her on. To put it a little bit facetiously, Anna believes that starving herself to death will give her recently deceased brother Michael a Get-out-of-Purgatory-Free Card! Having been reared in the same toxic variety of Roman Catholicism, I found most of the trappings – holy cards, novenas, rosaries, saccharine Mariolatry with expressions like “poor banished children of Eve” (that’s us), confession, mortal sins, the Redemptorist priests’ missions (sort of a Catholic version of a Fundamentalist tent meeting with lots of fire & brimstone preaching), & of course a nun in appropriate black habit – un-fond but vivid memories indeed. It is very hard to discern the boundaries between actual Roman Catholic dogma (what Catholics are required be accept de fide – which @ the time this book is set did not yet include Papal Infallibility), & what we might call “folk Catholicism” & out&out superstition.
Particularly with the priest in this story, these popular beliefs were treated as harmless adjuncts to the true faith, tho’ we see in Anna’s case that they can be lethal. In the case of Ann’s horrible mother Rosaleen (her voice & accent on the audio are like nails scraping on a blackboard), respectability & piety matter much more than the suffering of her daughter. The audio narrator, Kate Lock, was also brilliant with the other Irish voices, especially Dr. Brearty’s, with its mixture of senility, pomposity, credulity, provincialism, snobbery, & of course masculine superiority. Generally the all-male investigating committee seem a good example of what we now term “group-think” – each of them seems to suspect that what Liv is telling them is true, but no one of them can admit that collectively they are credulous idiots.
I have a few historical doubts. Could an Irish girl in Anna’s circumstances (after listening to the audio I almost heard “sarcumstances”) have so many books, including Thomas-a-Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ? She & the nun Sister Michael would not have stayed home when she was too sick to go to mass on a Holy Day & read the liturgy in a missal – it would all have been in Latin anyway. In those days Roman Catholics did not receive communion for the first time till they were about 14 (G. M. Hopkins wrote a poem about it, “The Bugler’s First Communion”), when they were confirmed. It also seems strange that a respectable Englishwoman then would have openly expressed as much religious scepticism as Liv. But quibbles aside, this is a brilliant book. There will be times when you want to strangle some of the characters; their pig-headed fideism is so infuriating. I’ll of course not give away the ending, but you will be on edge continually & just a little surprised @ how one character turns out. Emma Donoghue has given us a magnificent feat of historical reconstruction & storytelling.