Before I had children, I wondered if I could ever love a child as much as I adored my cat. Absurd, I know, but I remembered that embarrassingly naive attitude in reading The Wonder because the power of the mother-child bond is a motivating force in Emma Donoghue’s fiction. Yet, here is the twist: the Irish-Canadian writer is not interested in conventional takes in which Mamma falls desperately in love with baby.
In her recent novels, Room, Frog Music and The Wonder (which was shortlisted for the 2016 Scotiabank Giller prize), Donoghue presents alternative visions of motherhood. Herself the mother of two children raised in a same-sex relationship, Donoghue believes the mother-child bond is complicated and nuanced. She twirls Wordsworth’s aphorism “the child is father to the man” into a feminist meme, showing us that mother and child, however they come together, are equal participants in a pairing that requires loving and transparent hearts more than biological connections.
Donoghue entices us through the narrative lure of criminal activity and uses her prodigious research skills and cinematic vision to create fast-paced novels set in different eras and locations while retaining their common theme. Her 2010 breakthrough book, Room, which was set in the here and now on the eastern shores of the United States, was ostensibly the gruesome story of a sex slave, her captor and the unwanted child fathered by a rapist and kidnapper. In fact, it was a meditation on how a mother-child relationship that begins in horror can become redemptive.
Frog Music, which followed in 2014, takes place over three days in San Francisco in 1876 during an inferno of heat and contagion as the temperature soars and a smallpox epidemic rages. Who shot Jenny Bonnet, a cross-dressing frog catcher, as she lay sexually sated in a bedroom she shared with a French burlesque dancer and prostitute named Blanche Beunon? And who stole Blanche’s baby, the unwanted and neglected child she sent to a baby farm, and then retrieved?
Like Room, Frog Music is positioned as a crime story. Really, though, it is about how women are exploited in the sex trade, how lesbians suffer from prejudice and how maternal traits can be roused from a slough of indifference. Violence in Donoghue’s fiction invariably occurs off page, leaving us to imagine the damage that cruel characters (often, but not always male) can inflict on defenceless children.
These are the same issues that Donoghue brings to The Wonder, her strongest attack on the presumption that the nuclear family is the ideal parenting model.
She plunks us down in Ireland, in 1859, the middle of the Victorian era, as British imperialism is approaching its global crescendo. The story, which was inspired by diverse accounts of “Fasting Girls” over the past four centuries, is a simple one about a poor Irish couple named O’Donnell and their children, Patrick (Pat) and Anna. Donoghue tells it well, pitting the family’s abiding religious faith and superstitious belief in fairies against the medical knowledge and scientific training of Elizabeth (Lib) Wright, a British nurse who has been sent across the Irish Sea to discover how (not why) Anna O’Donnell has survived for four months without appearing to eat.
Wright knows about starvation. Her only child died as a newborn after refusing to suckle at her breast. Afterward, Wright trained as a nurse and became a “Nightingale,” working under the legendary “lady of the lamp” caring for wounded British soldiers during the Crimean War, a savage international conflict sparked by religious intolerance and territorial aggression.
As a nurse, Wright has “failed to find her niche” half a decade after the hostilities ended, and is thus “sufficiently at loose ends to take the poisoned bait” of a private nursing job in the Irish Midlands. She epitomizes the British fondness for stiff upper lips and is probably suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Alone and lonely, she keeps running scenes of dying soldiers on a memory loop interspersed with warnings from Miss N. not to become emotionally involved with patients.
But Anna, a clever, charming and pious girl, is not an ordinary patient. She is anorexic, having refused to eat food since her confirmation, which was celebrated on her eleventh birthday. How can she still be alive? Surely somebody—most likely her doting mother—must be slipping her food in an exploitative scheme to turn her child into a money-making attraction? Or is Anna a miracle, a potential saint who is sustained by divine intervention, or a scientific marvel who, like a plant, can transform light into nourishment? Anna’s fast evokes memories of the Great Irish Famine (1845–52). High summer is still known as the “hungry season” because many are destitute and begging on the side of the road as they await the annual potato harvest in the fall.
Everybody has something to gain from the girl’s fast. Wright will have the pleasure of exposing a cheat and thereby advancing her nursing career, the local doctor, an ignorant charlatan, longs for medical acclaim, a Dublin journalist wants a scoop, Anna’s mother and father want the glory of raising a saint, the local townspeople want to attract tourists and the possibility of secondary industry turning their “puny hamlet” into “a marvel of Christendom,” as Wright derisively puts it.
We see Anna’s deplorable situation from Wright’s point of view. She is often obtuse, ignorant and annoying as she fails to observe things that will be obvious to most readers, as in the true whereabouts of Anna’s absent older brother and the significance of his “crocodilian” appearance in the family portrait displayed on the mantle of the O’Donnell’s humble cottage.
Wright is slow to realize that she has been hired as a jailer and a spy rather than a nurse. The more effective her surveillance, the more danger she poses to the little girl by thwarting any clandestine feeding. In fact, Anna does not need a nurse. She needs a confessor or a psychological counsellor to plumb the psychological depths of the family secret that has persuaded her to fast in an exaggerated penance that even the local priest admits is way beyond anything demanded or condoned by the church.
The very nature of the watch, like all deathbed vigils, leads to pacing issues. To move the action along, Donoghue has Wright board at the local pub so she can interact with other guests including an enterprising and socially conscious journalist named William Byrne of the Irish Times. She also has Wright take her small and rapidly declining charge on forced marches around the neighbourhood.
It is not a spoiler to suggest that Wright needs rescuing as much as her patient, or that the plot turns on which woman—Anna’s overly devout mother or her astringent nurse—has the capacity to save the little girl. The growing relationship between the imported English nurse, the hungry journalist and the traumatized Irish girl is the heart and soul of the novel.
Pacing would not be a problem if Donoghue had written a traditional whodunit because a reader expects a fast unmasking of the villain and an even speedier resolution of the plot. But this is a novel of ideas more than action. Consequently, the transformation of key figures into villains and heroes happens too quickly. As a reader, I wanted more exposition of character, not less, and finished the book with the gnawing feeling that Donoghue had given us interesting ideas to savour, but not enough story to let us digest them satisfactorily.