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The mystery of faith - 'The Wonder'

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Historical novel taut, thoughtfuland terrific

There will always be those who believe in miracles. So too will there always be skeptics. And sometimes, there are skeptics who are charged with decrying (or verifying) those miracles.

Emma Donoghue's 'The Wonder' (Little, Brown and Company; $27) offers a glimpse at one such skeptic, a woman who believes only in what she can see, and what happens when the tenets of faith are taken to their extremity.

Donoghue who is best known for the international bestseller 'Room' and the lauded film of the same name has constructed a tense and thoughtful piece of historical fiction. Despite a relatively static central conflict, 'The Wonder' offers an expressive and thrilling narrative that is unafraid to explore sophisticated themes of morality and some of religion's darker shadows.

In 1850s Ireland, there isn't a lot of hope. Yes, the horrors of the potato famine have passed, but the country is still dealing with the aftermath. So when word starts to spread of a little Catholic girl named Anna O'Donnell who began fasting on her eleventh birthday and, thanks to a miracle of God, has thrived despite not taking a bite of food for over four months, people are happy to embrace and celebrate the phenomenon.

Lib is an English nurse, one who served in wartime at the side of the legendary Florence Nightingale. She has been hired by a committee of concerned citizens to come to the Irish countryside and bear witness to this little girl who is doing the impossible. For two weeks, Lib and her counterpart a nun from the Sisters of Mercy are to observe Anna and ensure that her miraculous fast is on the up-and-up, with no possibility of a hoax.

Lib is skeptical almost sneeringly so. She arrives convinced that Anna is nothing more than an attention-seeking liar, at best a willing pawn to be exploited by one or more members of her poor, seemingly-pious family. She views the town doctor as a rosy-eyed dimwit and the local priest as a probable instigator of the deception.

As Lib spends more time in the O'Donnell home, she starts to see that there is far more to this situation than any of them comprehend. It seems as though everyone is hiding something. Yet the only one who knows the entire truth is Anna the very person that Lib has come to expose. Despite the circumstances, trust and affection blooms between the stodgy, detached nurse and her bright-eyed, full-hearted charge. Lib is left to determine just what is happening to Anna, but one thing is clear miracle or not, the child truly is a wonder.

Few writers in today's literary realm have the ability to render the small writ large like Emma Donoghue. 'The Wonder' is one more example of her capacity to make intimate relationships feel epic in scope; the gradual melting of Lib's aloof iciness into an impassioned connection for Anna is simply marvelous to behold.

And the book fascinates as it wades into the peat-smelling morass of Irish Catholicism; 'The Wonder' has a complex relationship with religion. Faith is never far from the forefront, whether it's Anna's overabundance or Lib's seeming lack. There's a single-mindedness about it. Your degree of devotion defines you. You are the church and the church is you.

The boggy thickness of this world seeps from every page of 'The Wonder.' Donoghue's deftness of prose transports, leaving the reader to fan wisps of fog from the eyeline of their imagination. The sodden countryside practically squelches as well-crafted character after well-crafted character trod through it. Lib is a fascinating, flawed narrator, one who despite her propensity for reason is just the right degree of unreliable. Anna is delicately and sympathetically rendered, equal parts pious and playful. Every person who enters this tale no matter how briefly or tangentially rings true.

'The Wonder' is a beautifully-written book. There's sorrow, but also the small joys that can be wring from sorrowful times. It is a work of mystery and faith, one with compelling characters, a meticulously detailed setting and a handful of genuine surprises. It is smart and vivid and powerful.

It is, in a word, wonderful.

Last modified on Tuesday, 31 January 2017 19:36


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