The Wonder, by Emma Donoghue
Neat, lean, smart. When I try to describe this book I keep coming back to how impressively sparse it is. Targeted, intense and precise, it has all the tension of a mystery while posing as many questions as any literary great.
Lib is a nurse, or more specifically a ‘Nightingale’ trained by none other than Florence during the Crimean War. Now she’s been hired to watch over a mysterious 11 year-old girl. Anna O’Donnell has apparently not eaten a bite of food in 4 months, and is being hailed as a miracle by her Catholic community. Lib is to join forces with a nun to watch over the girl 24 hours a day, to either verify her story, or unmask a fraud. The nurse herself has no doubt at all it will be the latter.
For me The Wonder started like an inversion of the classic Henry James ghost story Turn of the Screw - but instead of a governess arriving at the children’s home all too ready to believe in ghosts, this time the outsider comes expecting nothing but facts, and entirely closed off from the supernatural. But, as in Henry James’ enigmatic tale - how much do we trust our narrator?
She herself has endless faith in her own faculties and conscientious note-taking. And through her careful logging of symptoms, Anna’s condition becomes a fascinating mystery to solve - not unlike an episode of TV show House (it is all too easy to imagine Hugh Laurie urging his team to scrape at those unsanitary-sounding walls for samples.) A breadcrumb trail of clues, both to what’s sustaining Anna, and what’s motivating her nurse.
Author Emma Donoghue is best known for Room, a story where the child imbues every object in his limited world with love and meaning. In The Wonder Emma has done the same with every image and theme. Nothing is wasted, and every word is working triple time. The gift of a thaumatrope, where the spinning toy shows an optical illusion of a bird in a cage, the riddles Lib teaches to Anna as they each search to solve their own puzzles, the painted eyes of the dead still watching out over the choices of the living.
She spins a captivating web of clues, and it’s a bracing delight to follow them, marvelling along the way at that impressively stripped down storytelling. It feels like a work of sublime art, conducted with immaculate craftsmanship. And when the mystery is finally solved, the new journey that triggers is every bit as satisfying as you might hope.
Published: 20th September 2016, Little, Brown UK