Ahoy there me mateys! For those of ye who are new to me log, a word: though this log’s focus is on sci-fi, fantasy, and young adult, this Captain does have broader reading tastes. Occasionally I will share some novels that I enjoyed that are off the charts (a non sci-fi, fantasy, or young adult novel), as it were. So today I bring ye:
the wonder (Emma Donoghue)
I have no idea where I first heard about this novel but I did somehow think that it had magical realism. Nope. It’s an historical fiction. And a darn good one at that. I listened to this one in audio book format read by Kate Lock. I wasn’t familiar with the actress and writer but found her voice to be wonderful.
The story takes place in 1859 and involves a young girl named Anna who is the subject of intense debate. People claim that she has not eaten anything in four months yet is thriving. Some call it God’s blessing. Others a hoax. What is the truth? Nurse Lib Wright has been summoned from England to give her expert testimony. She believes that she will quickly come to a conclusion and be back in England in no time. Instead what she finds changes her life forever.
The blurb labels this a psychological thriller. That is true but it is a very slow burning one. The story takes place over a two week period. There are sections of the book that deal with Lib’s days in meticulous detail. I absolutely loved Lib. She is a hard-working, single woman struggling to survive. She is a nurse that served in the Crimean wars and was trained by Florence Nightingale. A firm believer in science, she is completely in culture shock when she arrives in Catholic Ireland. Lib finds herself struggling between her training as a nurse and the task given to her by her employers to act as a non-interfering objective witness.
This book shows Catholicism from the eyes of an outsider. For those readers that might be strongly Catholic, Lib’s outright rejection and suspicion of that faith may be hard to handle. But juxtaposed with Lib’s viewpoints are eleven-year old Anna’s wholehearted faith. Anna is a little girl who most treasured possessions involve prayer cards and other religious articles. She is kind, intelligent though uneducated, and above all devout. It was fascinating to slowly learn how the little girl came to be the center of all the controversy.
And personally I found meself rooting for both Anna and Lib. The author did a fantastic job immersing me in the time period. I found it fascinating that Anna was celebrated for not eating when Ireland had come out of the potato famine not long before. The other characters were richly drawn out. The clash of culture, religion, education, medicinal ideas, gender differences, and class distinctions were explored in exemplary fashion. And I was surprised by how the situation was resolved. I highly recommend this one to the whole crew.
The author’s website says this about her inspiration for the novel:
I came across the Fasting Girl phenomenon back in the mid-1990s – so long ago that I can’t even remember where I first read about these girls and young women (and very occasionally older women or men). I was instantly intrigued by these cases, which seemed to echo medieval saints starving as an act of penance, and also modern anorexics, but weren’t exactly the same as either. It seemed to say a lot about what it’s meant to be a girl – in many Western countries, from the sixteenth century right through to the twentieth – that these girls became celebrities by not eating.
But I never found one real case that rang that little bell in me, telling me this was the story I had to tell in a novel. Some were too tragic, even for a writer with my dark tastes; Sarah Jacob, for instance, a little girl who died while being ‘watched’ by nurses in 1869. Some were low comedy, such as the case of Ann Moore, exposed as a cheat in 1813.
Finally it occurred to me that if I was still so fascinated by the Fasting Girls, two decades on, I should drop my usual method of writing a historical novel based on a real case, and let myself invent a story. I’d set it in Ireland, of course – not just because that’s my homeland, but because ever since the Great Famine of the 1840s, we’ve defined ourselves as a people intimate with hunger.
Also I read a fascinating interview with the author and Scott Simon on NPR. Check that out. Arrrr!
Goodreads has this to say about the novel:
The Irish Midlands, 1859. An English nurse, Lib Wright, is summoned to a tiny village to observe what some are claiming as a medical anomaly or a miracle – a girl said to have survived without food for months. Tourists have flocked to the cabin of eleven-year-old Anna O’Donnell, and a journalist has come down to cover the sensation. The Wonder is a tale of two strangers who transform each other’s lives, a psychological thriller, and a story of love pitted against evil.
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