I had a job interview and assessment day last week, which meant a very long train journey to Birmingham during which I was somehow going to have to distract myself from the horrors to come. The book I shoved into my handbag on a whim was “The Wonder” by Emma Donoghue; by the time I’d reached my destination I was almost halfway through, and even the hideous claustrophobia of a Virgin train carriage and the prospect of the next day’s Powerpoint presentation couldn’t draw my mind away from this most mesmerising story.
Anna O’Donnell is an eleven year old girl living in nineteenth century rural Ireland who’s become something of a celebrity. Her family claim she hasn’t eaten a single bite of food for months and yet is thriving, a fact attributed to a religious miracle. Lib Wright, an English nurse who worked in military hospitals under Florence Nightingale, is sent on a mission along with a Catholic nun, Sister Michael, to watch the girl round the clock and find out whether she is indeed blessed by God or whether it is in fact a clever hoax. Lib arrives in Ireland a confirmed sceptic and is convinced she’ll uncover foul play within days. Things, however, prove to be much more mysterious than she’d anticipated. She’s been given fourteen days to observe before reporting her findings to a local committee, and as the clock ticks down she finds herself much more emotionally involved with the case than she could have imagined.
The novel’s simplicity is striking. There aren’t huge numbers of characters vying for your attention. The setting is pretty much limited to Anna’s cottage, the inn in which Lib is staying and her walk in between the two. Even the events are repetitive (although I must stress that, very cleverly, they never read as such) in the sense that Lib’s routine is to sit or stroll with Anna, watch her sleep, read or pray and then get some brief rest herself before doing it all again. There’s a metronomic quality to the march of the days, yet they are always punctuated with just enough disquieting moments to give us an uneasy feeling about the way events may unfold. Even the most mundane of incidents take on an air of foreboding inside this strange bubble: the accidental breaking of a Virgin Mary figurine or the incomprehensible prayer that Anna mumbles over and over again. In fact, as the novel goes on, more and more references to superstition, if not quite the overtly supernatural, creep in, to the point where I started to wonder if what I had in front of me was developing into a horror story. The touches are always subtle – the locals’ fear of the “little ones”, the mischievous sprites who would cause untold havoc if not placated; the mysterious tree outside the village hung with decomposing rags; the disturbing photograph in Anna’s room that isn’t quite what it seems – but the sense of fear, and of something otherworldly potentially being involved here, is palpable. Even religion, which features very heavily in the story, is not the comforting presence you would hope, since Lib strongly suspects that the Church and some of its loyal, blinkered followers are actually conspiring to put little Anna at risk for the sake of publicising a supposed “miracle”. Whether or not there is any supernatural activity at work or whether there is in fact a very human, worldly explanation for everything is not something I’m going to give away here. What I will say is that by hinting at multiple possibilities, the author evokes in her readers the same sense of doubt and disorientation felt by Lib as she grapples with the confounding mystery laid before her.
The fact that I, with my notoriously poor attention span and butterfly-like approach to reading, managed to finish the entire book in just two sittings is a ringing endorsement of its compelling readability. I honestly can’t remember the last time a novel sucked me in so completely. Maybe it’s because the setting is the same chapter after chapter that you feel you’re actually there in the hovel, watching the girl who has now become so familiar to you it’s as if you know her for real. The fact that Lib and Sister Michael have been given a time limit of two weeks to verify or disprove the miracle also drives the book forward as we know that, for good or ill, a conclusion is coming. I must confess that, when I read the final chapter, I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about the ending; on reflection though, I’m pleased the author chose the outcome she did.
This has got to be up there with my top reads of 2017 so far. Five stars, full marks and any other accolade you can think of, this book gets it. Oh, and I didn’t get the job – but since it would have meant leaving my beloved book trade behind, I think I’m okay with it.