Starving for Answers

Reviewed by Lucia Lorenzi

In Emma Donoghue’s bestselling novel Room, the main characters are trapped within a small, claustrophobic room, held there for years by a sadistic sexual predator. In her latest work, The Wonder, Donoghue asks us again to meditate on suffering and captivity: this time, however, she asks us to consider what happens when a young girl inflicts pain upon herself, seemingly for no reason, becoming both captor and captive within her own body. Drawing on the Victorian history of so-called “Fasting Girls”—young women whose aversion to food made them into both celebrities and spiritual martyrs—The Wonder takes place in 1850s Ireland, where the unflappable nurse Lib Wright is summoned to the bedside of Anna O’Donnell, a young girl whose months-long fast appears to be so impossible as to be miraculous. Rather than solely being employed to care for the frail girl, Lib must determine, amidst the religious furor that surrounds the O’Donnell household, whether or not Anna is indeed a spiritual “wonder,” or rather simply a fraud who has been aided in her ruse by her entire family, and if so, to what purpose. Lib’s dual role as nurse and investigator is, at first glance, well served by both her medical training and her innate skepticism. Yet, as the days pass and Lib gains little insight into the girl’s psyche, she must face the consequences of her seeming inability to solve the wondrous mystery of Anna O’Donnell: Anna’s worsening physical symptoms and her impending death.

While Lib is undeniably the novel’s protagonist, Donoghue also asks her readers to consider the ways in which the young Anna disappears—both literally and figuratively—within the religious and scientific discourses which either praise or denounce her renunciation of food. For the pious villagers who visit the O’Donnell household to leave various religious offerings or money, Anna’s “thriving by special providence of the Almighty” is a hopeful indication of the workings of God, not to be questioned or interfered with, but only praised. Even amidst the scientific discussion surrounding Anna’s perplexing symptoms, the girl becomes the object of debate, rather than of intervention and care. In Lib’s initial briefing on Anna’s case, she declares boldly to Dr. McBrearty that “science tells us that to live without food is impossible,” to which the doctor replies with excitement: “haven’t most new discoveries in the history of civilization seemed uncanny at first, almost magical?”

Ultimately, The Wonder is a novel less about the supposed mystery of Anna’s inability or unwillingness to eat than about the ways in which the suffering of young girls—as much in 1850s Ireland as today—is simultaneously pathologized and mystified, denounced and celebrated. The cause of Anna’s perplexing symptoms is ultimately no great religious or scientific mystery, but Donoghue demonstrates that collectively we are often willing to let girls die—or, at the very least, languish on their deathbeds—before we realize the urgency of simply bearing witness to their stories.

This review “Starving for Answers” originally appeared in Literary History. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 233 (Summer 2017): 142-143.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.