Elisa Segrave

Body and soul

This powerful and eerie evocation of potato-famine Ireland has none of the charm and humour of much contemporary Irish writing

Body and soul
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The Wonder

Emma Donoghue

Picador, pp. 315, £

Emma Donoghue’s novel Room was short-listed for the 2010 Man Booker prize and made into a film in 2015. Inspired by Josef Fritzel’s incarceration of his daughter Elisabeth, it described a mother and son held captive in one room for several years. It depicted their intense, private world and focused on maternal love.

The Wonder also inhabits a small, claustrophobic space, whose inhabitants cling to idiosyncratic rules and beliefs. Set in the Irish Midlands soon after the potato famine, the story shows the reliance of the poor and often starving on a mostly joyless and self-punishing Catholicism. The Wonder, as Room did, depicts maternal love, this time distorted, but no less intense.

Our narrator is Lib Wright, a young English widow who had nursed in the Crimea under Florence Nightingale and imbibed that rigorous training. She is sent to Ireland for a mysterious two-week nursing job. Driven through drizzle in a ‘bare cart’, past ruined cabins and a woman begging ‘with a knot of children in the hedge’, she arrives at her lodgings at Ryan’s the ‘spirit grocer’ where, later that evening, local Doctor McBrearty explains her task, which is to invigilate over an unusual case: how can Anna O’Donnell, whose only sustenance since her 11th birthday four months ago has been sips of water, live?

Lib’s co-nurse turns out to be the nun she saw downstairs earlier, clicking her rosary. She and Sister Michael are to ‘observe’ Anna for two weeks, taking turns overnight too, as one of them must always be with her. McBrearty meanwhile has alerted the Irish Times to Anna in the hope of a ‘scientific’ explanation. Strangers come, hoping to view the ‘miracle’ child.

Lib is a religious sceptic with scant knowledge of Catholicism and is determined to find out how Anna is being secretly fed. She suspects the mother, Rosaleen, with her daily embrace ‘in which the big bony woman’s frame… blocked the child from view. A kiss like that of a great bird feeding her nestling.’ Anna claims to be living off ‘manna from Heaven’, but the journalist William Ryan warns Lib that Anna is dying.

There is a charming and humorous aspect to much Irish contemporary writing, but there is nothing of this here. This is a deeply serious, gripping book with an eerily powerful atmosphere. It examines religious belief, self-deception, ignorance, the connection (and disconnection) between the body and the soul, anorexia, death and the overpowering longing to believe in something ‘beyond’.