A Tight, Intense Drama Unfurls Within The Confines Of A Sick Room In 'The Wonder'

Oct 3, 2016
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Emma Donoghue is an Irish-Canadian writer who's written many novels plays and works of non-fiction. But she's best known for her 2010 novel "Room," which was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize and was made into a film last year starring Brie Larson. Donoghue's new novel is called "The Wonder." And our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, says it's aptly named.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: For Emma Donoghue, big stories thrive in the smallest of spaces. The type of setting Donoghue made her signature in "Room," her 2010 novel about a mother and son held captive together in a small room for years, is the one she returns to in her exquisite new novel "The Wonder."

In it, an 11-year-old girl and her nurse are confined day after day to a cramped bedroom barely three paces each way. To make matters more oppressive, the girl has refused food for weeks. In a real sense, she's shrinking into nothingness. Donoghue is not a novelist for the claustrophobic.

Tiny as they are, these rooms of Donoghue's teem with drama and great moral questions. Hesitant readers may think that they prefer stories with a larger sweep, a little more air. But Donoghue does so many intricate things within small corridors that, for a time, they become the most compelling places to linger. What was it the poet William Blake said about seeing a world in a grain of sand? Something of that kind of mystic expansion happens in Donoghue's rooms.

The story here takes place in the early 1860s in a farmer's cottage in Athlone, a boggy town in central Ireland. An otherwise ordinary young girl named Anna O'Donnell has transformed herself into what the locals are calling the living marvel. For the past four months, Anna apparently has swallowed nothing more than a few teaspoons of water. Yet she seems unchanged.

When pressed, the pious Anna confesses that she's living on manna from heaven. A committee of prominent men in the village hires two nurses to keep round-the-clock watch on Anna for two weeks. The nurses are charged with either documenting a miracle or discovering a fraud. One of the nurses is a tight-lipped nun. The other is a widowed English woman named Elizabeth - or Lib - Wright.

Lib is a Nightingale, a veteran of the nursing brigade that Florence Nightingale assembled during the Crimean War. Since that war ended, Lib has been working as a private-duty nurse and, most recently, in a hospital where she's treated like a servant. Because she yearns for a less-narrow life, Lib eagerly accepts the assignment in Ireland.

Although, she doesn't know until she arrives what she's getting into. What ensues is a tight, intense drama involving a contest of wills and a clash of worldviews. Throughout her eight-hour shifts, Lib, who feels as though she were being paid to stare, tries to cajole her patient into eating. Anna, in turn, tries to wheedle personal information out of her caregiver.

In the silence of her nighttime shifts, Lib speculates on whether or not Anna is a con artist or a victim of her parents' and the town's desires for fame or even a propaganda tool for the Catholic Church. At times, the solitude of the bedroom is interrupted by visits from Anna's parents, pilgrims seeking to touch Anna and even a reporter from The Irish Times. But mostly, Lib and Anna sit together in her bedroom. Here's a description.

(Reading) Lib took the second chair. It was so close to Anna's that their skirts were almost touching. But there was nowhere else to place it. Lib considered the long hours ahead with a sense of awkwardness. She'd spent months on end with other private patients. But this was different because she was eyeing this child like a bird of prey. And Anna knew it.

There are strains in this increasingly sinister and isolated situation of both Henry James' "The Turn Of The Screw" and Ron Hansen's brilliant 1991 novel about female martyrdom, Mariette In Ecstasy." Anna begins to weaken dramatically shortly after Lib's arrival. Her hair falls out in clumps. Her skin flakes. Her bodily swelling worsens.

Lib wonders about the existence of a God who would allow the suffering she sees before her as well as the suffering she witnessed during the war. These ruminations take place against the soundtrack of Anna's incessant prayers. Donoghue manages to engage larger mysteries of faith, doubt and evil without sacrificing the lyricism of her language or the suspense of her storyline.

Anna may or may not be a genuine living marvel. But "The Wonder" certainly is. At novel's end, despite all the time spent inside, many readers will be reluctant to finally take their leave of Anna's sick room.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Wonder" by Emma Donoghue.

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GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about some of the amazing things dogs can do with their noses, like sniff out traces of explosives, detect certain cancers and bedbugs. My guest will be Alexandra Horowitz.

Her new book, "Being A Dog," is about how dogs rely on their sense of smell and can detect smells we can't. We'll compare their noses with ours. Horowitz founded the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.