'The Wonder' explores the virtues of sacrifice

Tuesday, September 20, 2016 - 5:40pm

Emma Donoghue’s bestseller “Room” captured the explosive desperation of a mother trying to get herself and her son out of a room. Her latest book, “The Wonder,” conveys the urgency to get into one.

11-year-old Anna O’Donnell has not had a bite of food or a sip of anything other than water since her birthday, or so she and her family claim. Lib Wright, a nurse who served under Florence Nightingale in Crimea, has been asked to watch the girl around the clock. Not nurse or diagnose her, but to see if the girl is indeed a miracle in the making. Lib is much more inclined to believe she will discover subterfuge, not the supernatural; she distrusts Anna’s parents, as well as the Catholic nun who has also been asked to watch the girl.

But the longer Lib stays with Anna, increasingly bemused as to how the girl seems able to survive without food, the more she wants to protect her — from her parents, from those visiting their home in a tiny Irish village and leaving gifts as if Anna really were a miracle in the flesh, from the town neighbors who are suspicious too. Lib befriends William Byrne, a journalist who has been charged with discovering the truth about Anna as well. In his writing, he utilizes sardonic wit in place of information as Lib won’t let him near Anna — at first. Eventually, he wins Lib over, but whilst meeting Anna, the child wins him over. He also begins to care about her well-being in spite of himself, angry that no one wants to admit what he can clearly see — the girl is dying now, regardless if she was somehow managing to get food before what people are calling “the watch” started.

Anna’s brother has been dead for a while; she is bent on getting her dead brother out of purgatory and into Heaven, but it isn’t clear to anyone but Lib how far Anna will go to achieve this goal. There is a painful family secret involved that breaks Lib’s heart; but when Lib discovers she’s not the first person to learn about it, and that previous people who knew have done nothing, her resolve is stiffened to break orders and help Anna, before it is too late.

“The Wonder,” like “Room” or “Slammerkin,” is impossible to put down. (I read it all in one sitting, crying for about the last 30 pages). While the novel is more simply crafted than some of Donoghue’s other work, her undecorated but elegant prose sears the image of a dying girl in a room into your mind, Anna’s sweet raspy voice echos in your ear.

The only aspect in the work that applies a little more pressure than it needs to is Lib’s struggle with navigating the differences between watching Anna and nursing her. It is abundantly clear that Lib, as a nurse, can’t help but try to get Anna to a healthier place.

Watching Lib lose her grasp on ideas she has held close to her heart for years, due to Anna’s extraordinary innocence, piety and selflessness would be sweet if it weren’t so raw. As Anna softens the blunt edges of Lib’s beliefs, Lib is forced to confront the capacity for cruelty in others.

Donoghue has pinpointed and pulled apart a paradoxical issue in this novel; she’s offering us a story in which a woman’s professional opinion and knowledgeable position is questioned on the grounds of her maternal feelings. Just when her voice matters most, it is willfully tuned out by the men in power, who have decided Anna’s fate as if she has already become nothing more than a legend, a tourist attraction, a sinless, blameless, voiceless symbol.

“The Wonder” may have a somewhat happy ending, but Donoghue refuses to let readers forget the weight that’s placed on a tiny girl’s shoulders, the power of the ghost of redemption, and the sobering necessity to speak truth of the dead for the sake of the living. The book is a reminder that hope itself isn’t golden, untouched by clouds; it is bittersweet; it is the acknowledgment of sacrifice for the potential of and the belief in something better.