I had my doubts about this book when I read the brief description on the cover. I thought it might be a little gimmicky. The story is about a young Irish girl, Anna O’Donnell living in an impoverished part of mid-nineteenth century Ireland who stops eating on her eleventh birthday. Her family claims she lives on nothing but thin air and a few sips of water. The rumour spreads in this traditional, Catholic part of Ireland, that she is the product of a miracle and visitors come from as far away as America to satisfy their curiosity and to ask her to pray for them. Some of the local leaders come together and hire a young widow, Elizabeth (Lib) Wright, to conduct an around the clock watch over this wonder child. Lib is an English nurse, trained by Florence Nightingale and was part of the famous corps of nurses who tended the wounded and the dying in field hospitals during the Crimean War. Lib’s Irish employers want her to partner with a local nun, (who is also a nurse), in setting up a twenty-four hour bedside vigil to observe Anna and determine how such a fraud is executed, as there are those who want to raise Ireland out of what they perceive as its ancient superstitions. At the same time there are others in the background who are hoping there is some kind of verifiable miracle occurring and that Anna may eventually become a modern-day Irish saint. A third group is made up of pseudo scientists who hypothesize there might be a scientific explanation as to how Anna can survive without food.
As the novel opens Lib is travelling in a shabby cart into the interior of the island. It is an area that was hit hard by famine some years before leaving in its wake a ragged population weighed down by poverty, the main sources of employment being subsistence farming and the harvesting of peat for fuel. She is settled in a little hovel of a hotel and eventually introduced into the household where Anna lives. Lib is skeptical and does not believe in miracles being something of an atheist. She is certainly not a believer in earthly wonders. Even before meeting Anna, Lib assumes the child has gone along with the deception as a means of getting attention and that her family is some how slipping food to her. A few days into her job she begins to change her mind and to care for Anna, a bright, intelligent child who is thoughtful in nature and loves riddles and guessing games.
The plot of this story is propelled forward by the mystery of how Anna is managing to stay alive and what has motivated her to go on such a fast. Also, Lib’s feelings become conflicted as she realizes Anna’s health, which was poor to begin with, is in rapid decline and this decline is accelerating almost by the hour as the watch progresses. The logical conclusion is that with Lib’s arrival, whoever has been feeding Anna in the past is now prevented from doing so and thus Lib’s presence is contributing to Anna possibly starving to death. Lib is tormented as this is going against everything her vocation as a Nightingale nurse represents.
The concept of nursing as a profession is an interesting theme that recurs in this novel. Lib was widowed within a year of being married. After her husband’s death she was offered the opportunity to train to be a nurse and she seized upon it to as a means of achieving her independence and finding meaningful work. This was a daring, and for her contemporaries an incomprehensible thing for a young, educated middle class woman to do. There is a beautifully written short biography of Florence Nightingale in Eminent Victorians, by Lytton Strachey. In the first few pages the author describes what the term ‘nurse’ meant before Florence Nightingale elevated the profession to the high standards it adheres to today. Thus before Florence Nightingale’s intervention a ‘nurse’ meant:
“… a coarse old woman, always arrogant, usually dirty, often brutal, a Mrs. Gump, in bunched-up sordid garments, tippling at the brandy bottle or indulging in worse irregularities. The nurses in the hospitals were especially notorious for immoral conduct; sobriety was almost unknown among them; and they could hardly be trusted to carry out the simplest medical duties.” [Eminent Victorians. L Strachey, The Folio Press 1979, p 125].
At the time Lib became a nurse it would have seemed quite absurd, even a crazy thing for a middle class women to want to do. However, strong-minded women such as Lib, took up the work with a zeal reserved for missionaries. The reformed nursing profession would not only be founded solidly on service to humanity but it would become a means for a woman to obtain financial independence in a world where there were few ways for them to have a decent life outside marriage and the home.
The Wonder is nicely paced and describes a time and a place where religion and reason were barely tolerated side by side. Emma Donahue, who is Irish by birth, deals with this by cleverly using Lib as an outsider and a non believer. The reader observes the ritual ordering of the day around prayer and faith through the eyes of a secular, worldly-wise witness while making us believe in the sincerity of the devout little girl.
This novel has lots of elements of a good story: dark family secrets, intrigue, dubious relationships, opportunistic profit seekers and even romance. Lib’s stay in Ireland is an adventure and it is in a spirit of adventure the conflicts of this novel are resolved. This book is both insightful and entertaining. It does not disappoint in terms of its narrative architecture. However, I am not quite sure about the ending as it seemed to me a little implausible but I won’t loiter near that subject as it is bordering on the criminal to give away the ending of a book to anyone who has as yet not read it.