Book review: Like her previous acclaimed novel, Emma Donoghue’s suspenseful “The Wonder” mostly takes place in a cramped space.
Emma Donoghue has a thing for tiny spaces. “Room,” her harrowing, acclaimed 2010 novel (and 2015 movie, scripted by Donoghue), told of a young mother and her 5-year-old son living captive in one cramped room. Now her latest novel, “The Wonder” (Little, Brown; 289 pp., $27), mostly takes place in the minuscule bedroom — “an unadorned square” — of another child: 11-year-old Anna O’Donnell, who lives in a rough-hewed cabin with her parents in 1850s rural Ireland, and who may or may not be a living miracle.
The story unfolds through the point of view of Lib Wright, a no-nonsense British nurse who’s been summoned to the O’Donnells’ village to witness and confirm the strange events unfolding there. Anna, described by her doctor as “a quiet, pious girl,” has reportedly not eaten a bite of food for four months. Lib, a veteran of Florence Nightingale’s nursing corps, isn’t informed of the particulars of her new job until after her arrival. A thorough and practical professional, she bristles at the idea that she’s there just to watch.
Observation, she muses, “was only the first part of the puzzle. Miss N. had taught her nurses to watch carefully in order to understand what the ill required and provide it. Not medicine — that was the doctor’s domain — but the things she argued were equally crucial to recovery: light, air, warmth, cleanliness, rest, comfort, nourishment, and conversation.”
The author of “The Wonder” will appear, in conversation with author Laurie Frankel, at 7 p.m. Oct. 22 at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com; free). She will also appear at an author luncheon at 1 p.m. Oct. 22 at Ravenna Third Place Books, 6504 20th Ave. N.E., Seattle (206-525-2347 or thirdplacebooks.com; tickets are $40 and include lunch and a copy of “The Wonder”).
But so begins a series of dark days, with Lib alternating her time between her modest lodgings above the “spirit grocery” (not a haunted shop, as Lib initially thinks, but one that sells alcohol) and Anna’s room — watching the pale, obedient girl; measuring her vital signs; trying to understand what, exactly, is happening. Lib believes in science; she knows Anna must be eating somehow, otherwise she’d be dead. But, in spite of herself, she becomes attached to the child — “a girl caught up in a sort of waking dream, walking toward the edge of a cliff without knowing it.”
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Donoghue, a native of Ireland who now makes her home in Ontario, has a knack for enchanting phrasemaking — “Rain was tapping on the roof like the fingers of a blind man” — and a clear fascination with language. Each chapter begins with a single word — “nurse,” “watch,” “fast” — and a list of that word’s very different definitions; twist it, and it changes color.
She also has an uncanny way of making her tale (inspired by a number of historical cases of so-called Fasting Girls in the British Isles) both intimate and enormous. As Anna and Lib sit quietly together, you sense the too-close breath between them, and you hear what Lib (who has some secrets, gradually revealed) isn’t saying. And you realize, unexpectedly, that you’ve become part of them, that you became lost in their story and its suspense (yes, it’s a page-turner, almost unbearably so), and that, for a while, your own life fell away.
“The Wonder” — the book — just takes up a tiny space. But, like all good books, it’s a world.