Book Nook: The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

Image Credit: Samaneh Sadeghi Marasht

Lauren Cassidy discusses The Wonder and where to read it

What to Read:

Best known for her imaginative storytelling in the international bestseller Room (2010), Emma Donoghue’s ninth novel The Wonder (2016) similarly defies genre expectation, interweaving elements of historical fiction, the gothic, and a psychological thriller. 

Set in the mid-nineteenth century, The Wonder follows Lib Wright as she travels to a rural Irish village. As a respected English nurse, Lib believes she has been employed to tend to a member of the Anglo-Irish gentry. However, she soon finds out that she has been deployed to spy on a Catholic peasant child; Anna O’Donnell, an eleven-year-old girl who has not eaten for days, bordering on weeks. Surrounded by a zealous community, Anna’s family, friends, and neighbours hail her as a divine miracle. Pilgrims travel from all over to pay homage to this living, breathing wonder. However, things are not as they seem.

At the story’s beginning, Lib works tirelessly to expose Anna as a fraud. Slowly beguiled by the child’s optimism and good nature, Donoghue’s protagonist develops a maternal affection for her charge. Becoming increasingly disturbed by the situation, Lib implores others to help her stop Anna’s fast, fearing she has unwittingly become complicit in the murder of an innocent child.

The Wonder’s most striking element is its sense of suspense and suspicion. Donoghue’s language is laced with scepticism, intrigue, and mystery. As you follow Lib through the narrative, it’s difficult to figure out who you can trust. The O’Donnells? The local priest? Their doctor? Even Lib’s judgement can be questioned. Paranoia drips from Donoghue’s pages, putting the reader on edge. The novel has serious Hitchcock vibes, and I can’t help but think he would have had a field day with this book.

The cadence of Donoghue’s narrative voice is utterly bewitching; like a literary siren pulling you deeper into a stark, post-famine landscape and the story itself. The Wonder unfolds slowly at the start, drawing the reader in. However, the tempo picks up mid-tale as Lib realises she is against the clock. It’s an agonizing juxtaposition; Lib’s rapid flight around town to enlist help, any kind of help, and Anna’s slow, daily pilgrimage towards death. As a reader, it is excruciating and thrilling to occupy both temporalities at once. Time screeches to a halt at the novel’s conclusion, as Donoghue reveals startling, deafening truths about her characters.

This book is about the past in more ways than one. It’s about how we edit personal histories, slicing memory to help us cope with the present, to help us fit into wider narratives, to make us a little more palatable for those around us.

I stayed up all night to finish this novel. While it can be a bit of a slow burn at the start, the pay-off is worth it. It’s only at the very end that you will kick yourself for not following The Wonder’s breadcrumbs close enough. Clues are scattered throughout Donoghue’s narrative. The Wonder’s mystery could be solved within its first two chapters, if you only look a little closer, delve a little deeper beneath its careful subtext. 

I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in mysteries, psychological thrillers, historical fiction or feminist revision. 

Where to Read it:

This novel was read late at night, in a room I was just beginning to make my own. Having moved to a new city for college, I looked to one of my favourite authors to provide a sense of familiarity and comfort. After long, cold, uncanny January days, I found myself sinking into its depths with a sense of euphoric escapism; beneath a crisp, new duvet; or perched on top of a still-bare study desk, slowly gaining a post-it-note fringe and keepsakes; or sprawling out on worn carpet with the words spread out in their inky constellations, like skies known from some vague childhood dream, but uncharted until that moment. 

As strings of pound-shop twinkly lights glimmered in the backdrop, I was transported to another century, becoming immersed in Donoghue’s dark, detailed nights where real stars could still sparkle, without the dense, blinding fog of light pollution or drawn curtains. In the cramped quarters of student accommodation, I was able to reach into The Wonder’s vast imaginative space, pulling mystery, wonder, and suspense into an environment that still felt very mysterious, wonderful, and frightening. 

Reading from the cosy comfort of my new dwelling, which, with each turn of the page became more and more familiar, I began to feel like a voyeur. Peering into another century, a closed community, a private family, and a lost history; I realised how easy it was to lose myself in another world, from the safety of my now very homey nook.