It is the late 1850s. Ireland is in the first decade of recovery from the Great Hunger, and Lib Wright, a young Englishwoman who served with Florence Nightingale in the Crimea, is en route to a new, as yet undefined assignment in the Irish midlands, “the dead centre” of the country. She imagines she will be working for a wealthy (and perhaps hypochondriacal) country squire who is cosmopolitan enough to require “a better class of nurse.”

Trained in scientific observation, Lib scrupulously, if disdainfully, takes in the details of poverty and dirt — and religiosity — that pervade her new surroundings. While her observations are precise and detached, she is quick to theorize ahead of her data: (Mis)interpretation is often simultaneous with observation. Hearing that she will be lodged in the “spirit grocery,” she assumes that superstitious locals must consider it haunted. Only later does she realize the term merely refers to a shop that sells spirits.

Her commission is as alien/alienating as her surroundings. It is not a country squire, but a girl. Eleven-year-old Anna O’Donnell’s parents claim she has lived entirely without food for the past four months and yet remains perfectly healthy. Crowds have gathered, pilgrims have arrived, the press is sniffing around. Some see Anna as a miracle, but a committee of local worthies, concerned that their village’s name “has become a byword for credulous backwardness,” wants Lib, whose status as a Nightingale and an outsider will confer credibility, to watch the child 24/7 for two weeks, trading eight-hour shifts with a local nun. No nursing is required or even allowed, just vigilant observation. In a fortnight, Lib and Sister Michael are to report whether the village is housing a hoax or a genuine miracle.

Although less claustrophobic than Donoghue’s highly acclaimed novel “The Room,” “The Wonder” offers up many of the same elements: a woman, a child, a room, a mystery, an increasingly creepy sense that something is happening, but we don’t know what it is. Donoghue excels at depicting the sickroom: the erratic compression and expansion of time, the unique combination of tension, boredom, fear and confusion that constitutes the hothouse world of the bedside vigil.

While the characters are free to leave the room, there is really no escape: Off-duty, Lib roams the countryside, which proves equally disorienting, and begins a relationship with William Byrne, a journalist who is determined, like Lib, to uncover the truth. Both are haunted by their past: The Crimean War and the Famine shaped the lenses through which they read Anna’s situation, reading and misreading the clues.

So many things are right in this novel that I wished — almost angrily — that a few things had been better, most particularly the dialogues in which characters tell each other things for no reason except that the reader needs to know them. And the ending struck me as contrived. But then, I could say the same about “Jane Eyre,” which I love. The bottom line: Read it. The important things will stay with you while the clumsy ones will fade from memory.

 

Patricia Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.

The Wonder
By: Emma Donoghue.
Publisher: Little, Brown, 291 pages, $27.