The wonder by Emma Donoghue
Picador, 2016. ISBN 9781509818396
(Age: 16+) Highly recommended.
Emma Donoghue is the bestselling author of Room, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2010, now an award winning film. That book was about a young boy and his mother held captive in a room by a child abductor. With this latest book, The wonder, Donoghue ventures into the world of historical fiction - it is set in the Irish Midlands in the 1850s, a time of fervent religion mixed with superstition, and bog marshes that could easily sink a body. In this story also, the child is like a prisoner under constant watchful guard, and there is an undercurrent of suspicion of abuse.
Anna, the child, has been extolled as a wonder, a miracle from God, she has not eaten for months but seems healthy nonetheless. She is a 'fasting girl' - one of a number of recorded cases of girls and women hailed for surviving for long periods without food, in the sixteenth to twentieth centuries. Lib, a nurse trained in the latest medical approaches by none other than Florence Nightingale herself, is hired by a local committee to observe the child and make a report at the end of her two weeks of observation. A no-nonsense believer in science, Lib is determined to expose any trickery, and she sets about ensuring there is no secret smuggling of food. However, as her observations record the gradual deterioration in Anna's health and she is shocked into realising she is also complicit in starving the child, Lib has to decide what action she should take.
At the heart of the story is an analogy with the fairy story of Rumpelstiltskin, where a young girl is compelled to weave straw into to gold because of her parent's boastings. Her debt to the strange little man who comes to her aid can only be broken by guessing his name. So there is the play between Anna and Lib, of guessing games and riddles, which creates a kind of friendship between the two. But Lib gradually comes to realise that she has to do more than just be a friend, she has to take action.
This book is an intriguing mix of fairy story, science and religion, each contributing to the puzzle that Lib has to solve. In addition there is a thread of romance as she is befriended but also confronted by the charming yet astute young journalist William Byrne. The tension builds as Lib comes closer to working out the truth and realises that she alone can save the child. Is she clever enough and brave enough to do what is needed? I found I couldn't put this book down in the last chapters - it is a gripping yet very satisfying story because it is clearly written from a real understanding of the world of the child, of parent-child relationships, the complexities of child abuse, the power of religious and superstitious beliefs, and the individual struggle with conscience and finding the courage to take a stand against the prevailing group. It's a fascinating and thought-provoking book - highly recommended, and has my vote for best book for 2016.