The topic of anorexia has shown up recently in several contemporary novels, including The Vegetarian and White is for Witching. In each of these novels the disorder is coded as something else, and once again, in The Wonder it shows up under a mediating guise. What links the three novels is the experience of watching death come slowly. The girls in these novels are starving themselves to death and the reader joins them for every agonizing detail of their decline.
The Wonder is the story of Lib Wright, an expert nurse and former pupil of Florence Nightingale. She is an Englishwoman contracted to come care for an eleven year old girl in rural Ireland. Anna, the child, has been declared a local “wonder.” For the community, the story hinges upon proving the child a miracle, thus bringing glory (and tourist dollars) into their minuscule Irish hamlet. It does not take long for Lib to realize that the child is unhealthy, but even her well-trained eye is not able to spot what the reader surely will: this child is dying in front of us. Lib struggles with her desire to not only prove that the child is sneaking food somehow but also to understand why a child would be trying to turn her body into a grotesque miracle.
The unravelling of that central mystery is lent compelling force by the fact that you know from very early on that Lib and Anna are running out of time. The community around them, from the parents to the doctor to the parish priest are all wholly unhelpful, having either devoted their total faith to the veracity of the miracle or subconsciously decided that the child’s potential death is worth the answers it would bring. Lib finds one ally in a rational Dublin reporter. His appraisal of the situation (one look at the child is enough for him) is what brings Anna’s mortal danger to Lib’s full attention.
In that detail lies my only real complaint about this novel. Lib does not understand what is happening to Anna’s body, even though it really should be obvious to a trained nurse, or to any person unfettered by the blinders of Catholicism. Lib allows herself to hope the child really is a miracle, since the alternative is so grim. What is so agonizing about her indecision is the countdown any modern reader will have going from chapter one. How many more days can Lib take to figure this out before it will be too late for her to do anything at all? Will she solve the mystery only after the child’s body is damaged beyond repair? Donoghue’s skill at depicting characters in tense torment is undeniable. I was ready to tear my hair out and scream at the book as Anna dwindled away.
I read the book straight through within approximately a day, truly unable to put it down. It has immense power as a narrative, invoking a host of real-life stories like Anna’s. Donoghue manages to sketch a portrait of the trauma that would inspire a 19th century child to descend into anorexia, embracing at every turn both historical accounts and modern echoes. Lib spends the novel just trying to understand why a girl would want to starve herself to the point of death, and hoping with all she has that finding the answer will break that awful spell. It will be a familiar feeling to many.