Is Emma Donoghue cultivating a new genre? Call it “emergency motherhood.” Like her 2010 bestseller, Room, Donoghue’s ninth novel features a woman whose existence is bent around the life, health and happiness of a child whose circumstances are desperate.
The Wonder is set in Catholic Ireland, just after the ravages of the potato famine. Little Anna O’Donnell has survived months without food, leading the townspeople to believe she is a miracle. Due to her fame, the diocese where she and her family live assigns a nurse and a nun to watch her around the clock. The nurse is Lib Wright, a British veteran of the Crimean War who was personally trained by Florence Nightingale. The nun is a shadow of a creature called Sister Michael. Anxiously watching and waiting are Anna’s parents.
Lib, a no-nonsense type, assumes something dodgy is going on. After months of nothing but spoonfuls of water, Anna should be dead. Then, under the eyes of Lib and the nun, Anna does begin to die in earnest. This prompts a battle between Lib and Anna’s mother: In Donoghue’s world, those who haven’t given birth—Lib had a baby who died in infancy—just don’t get it. Virginal Sister Michael and the servant girl are compassionate but befuddled. The men are useless. The conflict can only end in catastrophe. Or maybe, to use Tolkien’s word, a eucatastrophe.
Donoghue’s strength is the fierceness with which she approaches her subject matter, and The Wonder sometimes reaches Exorcist-level intensity as Lib and Mrs. O’Donnell contend over Anna’s body and soul. Suspenseful and compelling, the story will keep readers turning pages.