The Wonder by Emma Donoghue (A Spoiler-Free Book Review)

photo of a cottage in the Irish countryside

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If this were an oral book review, it would begin with expletives, shouted in strings. That’s the kind of novel The Wonder is; the kind that elicits visceral reactions.

“Spine-tingling” is an adjective usually reserved for works of horror, and The Wonder could qualify as such. There are scenes that made me squirm, passages that filled me with dread, and revelations that turned my arms to gooseflesh. 

But labeling Emma Donoghue’s masterfully written work anything other than fiction would be doing it a disservice. It is an amalgamation of genres—mystery, psychological thriller, historical fiction, biblical exegesis—and yet it transcends all of them. In carrying on in the long tradition of Irish storytelling (Donoghue was born in Dublin, before emigrating to Canada), The Wonder defies categorization.

The mystery is a straightforward one: An eleven-year-old girl, Anna, who lives in the “dead centre” of Ireland has, allegedly, been fasting for four months, and yet she’s still (relatively) healthy. How is she doing it?

Is it a miracle, as many of the visitors who make the pilgrimage to her tiny cottage believe? Or is it a ruse? Or perhaps some yet-undiscovered medical phenomenon with a valid scientific explanation? An English nurse, Lib, who trained under Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, is called to Ireland to investigate. Our story begins…

While the how? of Anna’s fasting would’ve been sufficient to propel the plot of a lesser novel, Donoghue takes us a level deeper, making us ask why? Why is this little girl doing this? And why is her family allowing it to happen?

Admittedly, I guessed part of the answer early in the book, but it didn’t lessen the impact of the reveal. Also admittedly, some of my other hypotheses were proven wrong, and hindsight had me kicking myself for missing what now seem like obvious clues.

The backdrop of post-Famine nineteenth-century Ireland anchors the story in a grim yet mystical reality. No character in The Wonder has been a stranger to death, and the villagers cling to superstitions that are rooted both in their Christian beliefs and their local folkloric beliefs. Just as God is an ever-present force in their lives, so is “the other crowd” — the little ones. (But don’t call them fairies, they don’t like it when you call them that, as Anna explains to Lib.)

It rankles me to see that The Wonder doesn’t have higher ratings on Goodreads (3.6) or Amazon (4.1), not that those scores are by any means low. I suspect that some of the novel’s more conservative readers were put off by Donoghue’s blunt explorations of Catholicism and the tug-of-war that exists between science and dogma.

If you are a person of faith, I urge you not to be dissuaded from reading this book based on its religious content. Far from making a determination one way or the other (e.g. Religion bad! Science good!), Donoghue tactfully investigates the roles and limitations of each side. And without giving too much away, the resolution of the plot relies as much on embracing the spiritual and immaterial as it does on embracing the physical and logical.

As a final thought, let me just say that I am endlessly jealous of Donoghue’s writing style. She is so economical with her words, I’m tempted to call her prose “simple” or “concise.” But those descriptors almost come across as insults when I mean them as exaltations.

Put in more clichéd terms, The Wonder is readable, the epitome of a page-turner. Donoghue doesn’t bog us down (pun intended, you’ll get it when you read it) with unnecessary scene-building or elaborate character or setting descriptions. She lets the story happen, and boy am I glad she does.

This is a story that will stay with me for a long time, if not forever. It is haunting, enthralling, disturbing, confrontational, and yet, somehow, inspirational. Donoghue beckons her readers to a roaring ocean and asks: Are you going to stand there, safely, on the shore, or are you going to dive into the surf?

Irish Myths rating: ☘️☘️☘️☘️☘️ (5/5)

Grab your copy of The Wonder.

Per the publisher: “In this masterpiece by Emma Donoghue, bestselling author of Room, an English nurse is brought to a small Irish village to observe what appears to be a miracle — a girl said to have survived without food for months — and soon finds herself fighting to save the child’s life.” Learn more…

P.S. The Wonder is included in my list of 17 must-read books about Irish history and culture.

P.P.S. Prefer audiobooks to traditional books? You can snag 3 months of Audible Premium Plus for free using this link.

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