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An eleven-year-old girl stops eating, but remains miraculously alive and well. A nurse, sent to investigate whether she is a fraud, meets a journalist hungry for a story . . .
Set in the Irish Midlands in the 1850s, Emma Donoghue's The Wonder – inspired by numerous European and North American cases of 'fasting girls' between the sixteenth century and the twentieth – is a psychological thriller about a child's murder threatening to happen in slow motion before our eyes. Pitting all the seductions of fundamentalism against sense and love, it is a searing examination of what nourishes us, body and soul.
Donoghue demonstrates her versatility by dabbling in a wide range of literary styles in this latest novel. Set mostly in a small, spare room inside a shabby cabin in rural 1850s Ireland, the closely imagined, intricately drawn story possesses many of the same alluring qualities as her bestseller, Room. Lib, a widow and former nurse, is summoned from London to the peat-smelling village of Athlone for a fortnight to assess whether 11-year-old "living marvel" Anna O'Donnell has truly been able to survive without food for four months. It could be some sort of hoax perpetrated by the girl's family or the village parish, and Lib confidently assumes that it'll be an open-and-shut case. But as each day passes and Anna's health suddenly begins to deteriorate, not only does Lib grow more attached to the earnest girl, but she also becomes convinced that Anna's reasons for fasting a recently deceased brother, devotion to God, her parents' influence run far deeper than Lib imagined. Inspired by the true cases of nearly 50 "Fasting Girls" who lived throughout the British Isles, western Europe, and North America between the 16th and 20th centuries and became renowned for living without food for long periods of time Donoghue's engrossing novel is loaded with descriptions of period customs and 19th-century Catholic devotional objects and prayers. Even with its tidy ending, the novel asks daring questions about just how far some might go to prove their faith.