Anna O’Donnell is a little girl who survives without eating- a miracle of Catholics faith. Emma Donoghue’s historical novel The Wonder is inspired by the strange phenomenon of the Fasting Girls, recurrent cases of women claiming to live with no nourishment in the 16th to 20th centuries.
Lib Wright, a serious and brisk nurse, is sent to rural Ireland to supervise Anna at the request of a local committee. Deeply superstitious and staunchly religious, the community is deeply vested in the truth of Anna’s state. Having been blighted by the Irish potato famine, Anna is a beacon of hope amongst a hard, hungry subsistence.
Trained by the famous Florence Nightingale at the Crimea war, Lib’s starched, reasoned mind provides a straightforward narrative that pleasingly contrasts with the oddness and unreality of the events and landscape around her. Suspicion and doubt creep into to Lib’s certainties as she encounters Anna’s spirituality and struggles to get to the bottom on the matter. Is she really sustained by god? Is she secretly eating? And if so, who is feeding her?
I was drawn into this tale of a mystical, isolated community where fairies lead you astray into peat bogs or doctrinal interpretation determines life and death. The Wonder is tragic, terrifyingly strange, and damning of religion, yet I am left oddly charmed by Donoghue’s weird historical wormhole.
Read: When you’re feeling hungry.