Monday 21 August 2017

When reason and superstition collide

Fiction: The Wonder, Emma Donoghue, Picador, €12.99

Emma Donoghue's intriguing 12th novel takes its inspiration from the Fasting Girls of history
Emma Donoghue's intriguing 12th novel takes its inspiration from the Fasting Girls of history

JP O' Malley

There is a strong tradition in Irish history of men refusing to eat food, using their body as both a political weapon and a gift to God.What's less well known is a history of women starving themselves. They were known as Fasting Girls. The phenomenon happened between the 16th and 20th centuries, and spread across Britain, Western Europe, and North America.

Some of the Fasting Girls gave a religious motivation for not eating. Most were put under surveillance, others imprisoned, some were force fed, some died, and others lived for decades - claiming not to need food to function. Today, these Fasting Girls would be treated for what is now a recognised medical illness: anorexia nervosa. But pre-modernity, their actions were often interpreted as a sign from the supernatural.

It's within this historical context that The Wonder - Emma Donoghue's 12th novel - gleans its inspiration. The central protagonist is Lib Wright, an English nurse. She is sent over from London to the Irish midlands to investigate why an 11-year-old-girl, Anna O' Donnell, is refusing to eat. Apparently, Anna is alive and well without taking any food.

Lib immediately learns that within this small community a committee has been formed: it includes a local priest, a doctor, and close family members. A conservative bunch, it appears as if Anna's prospects as a future saint is their only concern.

From the moment she arrives, Lib is branded an outsider and thus treated with suspicion. She is Protestant, while they are Catholic; she is English, they are Irish; she is a cold scientific rationalist, they are superstitious, emotional, and religious; she believes in progress while they believe in the will of God and miracles.

Donoghue builds the plot slowly, keeping the reader second-guessing all the time, with little hints, nudges, and clues as she goes. But what makes The Wonder such an intriguing read is the dramatic twist - which includes a dark family secret - that bubbles to the surface as the full story eventually unravels.

The time line the novel is set in is hardly a coincidence. 1859 was the year Charles Darwin's On the Origin of the Species was first published - a book that brought the Enlightenment notion of reason to new heights.

But even rationality - as Donoghue's novel subtly points out - has its drawbacks, and can lead to blind ignorance.

Lib, with her firm belief in reason, sees herself as intellectually and morally superior to the Irish, believing them to be backward, ignorant, and uncouth. It's through Lib's interaction with William Byrne - an Irish journalist who is also investigating Anna's story - that she learns hard facts about the recent Irish famine.

Thus the hero of the story undergoes a transformation and a process of self-analysis - facing her own past.

Donoghue's latest tome has more in common with her earlier works of historical fiction than her two recent books. It's light years away from the psychological intensity of her best-selling block-buster novel, Room. It's also completely different in style and content from the crass and humorous prose of Frog Music, which zoned in on ideas of revenge, and the body as a purchasable commodity in the free market.

Still, Donoghue's recurring themes are never too far away: outsiders and freaks; the relationship between the body and society; conservative authority versus the free will of liberalism; and how historical moral conundrums of yesteryear can teach us about our present age.

The Wonder is a slow burner and it must be approached with patience. But eventually the reader is rewarded - if they are willing to stay the course.

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