Set in 19th century Catholic Ireland, The Wonder tells a story of a pious 11-year-old Anna who claims to be able to survive without food, living on “manna from heaven.” In the author’s note, Donoghue mentions that she drew inspiration from 50 cases of so-called “fasting girls” – young females who claimed that they did not need food to stay alive. Some of them were motivated by religious beliefs, and just like The Wonder’s protagonist believed that their survival is possible thanks to the power of God.
Donoghue invites us into the story as seen through the eyes of an English nurse, Lib, whose job is to observe Anna and investigate whether the girl’s survival is, in fact, a religious miracle. Lib and a journalist Byrne remain highly sceptical about Anna’s case and strive to learn the truth behind the supposed wonder. When Lib notices Anna’s exacerbating health condition, she resolves to save the girl by proving that she is secretly being by her family members.
Just like many of Donoghue’s other novels, The Wonder is a psychological thriller. The author invites us to explore a highly unique case of a child’s religious fasting. We observe Anna from a perspective of a non-Catholic English nurse which helps Donoghue offer a broader view of 19-century Ireland with all its cultural propensities and belief systems. Exploring the problem of Catholic guilt, social mistrust towards young women, and the harmful effects of excessive piety, Donoghue inspires us to ponder upon the complexities and powers of the human psyche.
The author’s pithy but also smooth writing makes it easy to follow the plot and focus on the significant aspects of the story. Donoghue does not introduce unnecessary details and does not bore the reader with elaborate descriptions of the surroundings. Instead, she focuses on conveying Lib’s confusion and scepticism towards Anna’s mysterious survival. Reading the novel, we feel as if we were a part of the nurse’s investigation. “But was Anna nearer to starved or nearer to well? How to quantify the quality of being alive?” is the question that stays with us throughout the whole novel. We want the answers, so we keep searching for the clues along with Lib.
The Wonder is a novel worth reading. The problem which it describes is not necessarily easy to digest, but Donoghue’s refreshing writing style helps the readers understand and immerse themselves in the religious conundrum.