Book Review: Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews The Wonder by Emma Donoghue.
The Wonder is a novel about devotion and perspective. How far will a person let their ideals go when it comes to the well-being of the people around them? Set in 19th-century Ireland, the debate between the importances of religion versus science is at the forefront; the same way the two tends to face off in our current day. The novel searches the moralistic line for each perspective and how aware—or sensitive—one outlook must be to the other. Where does respect end and recklessness begin?
“Perhaps because your religion’s filled her head with morbid nonsense.”
“Perhaps because she’s mistaken morbid nonsense for true religion!”
The book follows Lib, a nurse coming from Florence Nightingale’s Crimean campaign, as she is hired to observe Anna O’Donnell, a young girl claiming she hasn’t eaten in four months. Our main character often thinks back about what her mentor had taught her during the campaign and either commends herself for following those lines of education or she is overcome with guilt and confusion because the situation makes her question her past instruction. This begs the question: is the moral course of action to follow her strict teaching (the brain) or to follow what she believes is right (the heart)?
Lib, alongside Sister Michael, has to simply verify whether the eleven-year-old is deceiving everyone—is it a miracle or is it a hoax? But because of Lib’s devotion to nursing, she has a hard time simply sitting by and watching a young girl refuse to eat, especially when there are physical results. As the mystery unfolds, the reader gets to see the expansion—as well as the stubborn nature—of views and perspectives by which the characters live their lives. The divide between the two modes of thought deepen and we are left with the importance of devotion to our body (or reality) compared to that of our soul (or conscience).
The Wonder moves quickly at the beginning and at the end, but during the middle section it lags. While I could imagine the author, Emma Donoghue, doing this to draw focus to time dragging for the nurses confined to a small room while they watch a young girl, I can’t fully get behind the change in pace. It helps the reader understand the miniscule shifts in thought coming from Lib during her observation, but, at the same time, the pacing slows to such a degree that I could see some readers giving up on finding out the conclusion. She doesn’t tease out enough information to keep the reader moving quickly and at times I dreaded picking it up to gain minimal story. Lib essentially goes from this is a hoax to maybe this isn’t a hoax to maybe she just believes she’s doing it. Her slow, ever-changing suspicions during the middle section don’t add up enough to justify the slowing pace.
At the beginning of the book, I was expecting fantastical elements to come into play. The setting and characters lent themselves to a perfect opportunity for magical realism, but the deeper into the story I got the less sure of myself I was. This in itself works to the book’s advantage. While we’re reading from the view of the skeptic, we are nearly led to believe the unbelievable, if only through the devotion of the religious. Since they are so hellbent on not giving up an inch of their beliefs, we are lulled into a sense of false security from a higher being. In doing this, Donoghue does build enough of a curiosity in the reader to get to the end of the book.
Donoghue does a good job of evenly placing the importance of religion and science for each side of the debate. As much as Lib trusts in science, Anna and her family believe in God as much, if not more. When we learn about Anna’s back story and the incidents that have led to her motivations for not eating, the more we want what Lib is striving for, but—and it’s a big but—we also understand why Anna is so devout in her mission. We are left with the split between the brain and the heart. Between Lib and Anna we have a complete character and we can see how they are able to coexist and work together to a solitary solution. We know that the brain is correct in its logic, but also how hard it is to decline the heart.
Donoghue should have written a more ambiguous conclusion. She could have blurred the lines between the two sides—like the rest of the book—but instead, she gives us a more concrete, neatly packaged end. We’d have known exactly where she stands on the issues and we didn’t need the final three pages to solidify that viewpoint. It was a missed opportunity to continue the debate she illustrates in the nearly three hundred pages prior. Though, the final three pages don’t take away from everything that came before, and those are all worthy of a read.