I have a slice of freshly baked Date Bread on a plate beside a steaming cup of chai tea and a kitty slouched over my shoulder as I write this post. We’ve had a bit of snow over the past couple of days, and as I look out the window, I see that more snow has fallen overnight, making it look like a truly wintery wonderland!
Last week I read the latest book by popular, award-winning Irish-Canadian author Emma Donoghue, The Wonder. Donoghue is most famous for her earlier novel, Room, about a young woman and her son who are kept in a room for years by her male abductor. I didn’t love the book, but I enjoyed listening to the audio version as it truly sounded as though it was being narrated by a six-year-old boy, which lent some credibility to the story (which, by the way, was based on a true story). I came to this book with mixed feelings - my other committee members didn’t love it, but I had it on hold at the library and it became available for me at exactly the right time, so I started it, fully expecting to put it down after a few pages and move on to something else. But it sucked me right in! Set in Ireland in the 1850s, this novel, also inspired by true stories, tells the story of an English nurse who is sent to the middle of the country to determine whether a young girl who claims to have been living without food for the past four months is, in fact, receiving nourishment surreptitiously. Widowed Nightingale-trained nurse Lib Wright is sent by her employers at the English hospital where she works to “the dead centre” of Ireland, a small village far from Dublin, a backwards town that is far behind modern times and relies heavily on the Roman Catholic Church for guidance and direction. Believing that eleven-year-old Anna O’Donnell is subsisting on air and the word of God alone, the town and Church benefit from the tourists that flock to this small village to behold “the Wonder”, leaving small gifts and making donations. But before the parish priest notifies the bishop of this miracle child, who could possibly be the first Irish saint to be canonized since the 13th century, a committee of important village men brings in the nurse and a nun, Sister Michael, to watch over Anna every minute for two weeks and report their observations back to the committee. They are not to discuss their observations with each other, nor are they to aid or assist the child in any way - they are simply to observe. What Lib finds on her arrival is a smart, healthy, robust, energetic child who believes that she does not need food to live, but that God is all the nourishment she requires. Over the course of the two weeks, as she and Sister MIchael work in alternating eight-hour shifts, Lib witnesses the child’s rapid decline in health and mental abilities. Her hands and feet swell, her physical strength declines, and her hair falls out, leaving clumps of red strands on her pillow. Lib feels that she is witnessing a slow murder by starvation, and that her presence and that of Sister Michael are impeding the secretive feedings that have been taking place over the past four months, which, while not providing full meals, have provided adequate nourishment to keep Anna fairly healthy. As her health declines, Lib’s feelings for and attachment to Anna grow, until she knows she must make a decision that will affect the outcome of the observation, a decision that very literally means life or death. This is a very interesting story, one that was inspired, according to the author, by nearly fifty cases of “fasting girls” from the 16th to the 20th century in various parts of the world, and I found the book to be a real page-turner, but only because of the story itself - I wanted to know what happened next. The writing, while solid, lacked the “wow” factor, and the character of Lib was positively annoying, and, at least to this reader, was completely unbelievable. And the love story…? I can’t even comment on that, except to ask, “What was Donoghue thinking?” So, to sum up: I felt that the writing was flawed, the characters were mostly unbelievable, and parts of the story were ridiculous, but I would still recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading fiction based on true stories, particularly stories about the unbelievable things that happened in history. The main story is fascinating, and worth the investment of reading time.
An aside: I was at a friend’s place yesterday for a birthday party, and was talking to another friend who recently got back from an extended visit to China. As we were talking, it came out that he’s considering making changes to certain aspects of his life, based on his experiences there, and particularly the time he spent in Buddhist temples. This reminded me of Larry Darrell, the main character in The Razor’s Edge, as Larry , too, experienced life-changing events as he sought to find meaning in life by studying with the mystics in India. It made me think that it was time to read The Razor’s Edge again. Then, when I looked up information about The Wonder this morning, I found a review written by none other that the master of horror himself, Stephen King. I was curious about this review, so I read it, and interestingly enough, he ended his review by saying that The Wonder reminded him of The Razor’s Edge, "only turned inside out... Maugham’s book is about the power of spirituality to heal. Donoghue has written, with crackling intensity, about its power to destroy” (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/02/books/review/stephen-king-emma-donoghue-the-wonder.html?_r=0) I would have never thought of this comparison myself, but it was interesting that he mentioned these two titles at a time when I was thinking of rereading one and have just finished reading the other - coincidence? Hmmm... I'll have to think about that.
That’s all for today. Have a wonderfully wintery afternoon!