The Wonder by Emma Donoghue sounded like a book perfectly calibrated for a rave review from me.
- Historical fiction – check
- Author of Room, which I loved – check
- Set in Ireland. Bit of a theme for this year – check
- Enticing book cover – check
Yet it was a challenge to get to the end of this book, let alone properly enjoy it. And the biggest reason why? Total overuse of the rhetorical question. Can I come back to the issue of rhetorical questions in a moment?
The main character in The Wonder is Lib Wright, a young English nurse who learned her trade under the tutelage of Florence Nightingale. Failing to find professional satisfaction in London after returning from the Crimean War, she accepts a job in Ireland. Her task is to watch over an eleven-year old girl, Anna, who has for four months refused to eat, and yet shows no signs of starvation. Locals have hailed it a miracle. Lib is convinced it’s fraud and is determined to uncover the deception.
The first flaw with this book is that Lib Wright is not a particularly likeable character. She is smug and well aware of her worth as a ‘Nightingale’. She is affronted by what she sees as the barbarity of Ireland – it’s muddy, primitive, riddled with talk of fairies and awash with Catholic rituals. The first half of the book is full of Lib’s aspersions and judgements.
Rosaleen O’Donnell crossed herself as she sat down and so did the priest and the nun. Lib thought of following suit. But no, it would be ridiculous to start aping the locals.
The singing from the so called good room seemed to swell….
I’m assuming Donoghue did this to highlight Lib’s alienation and to showcase nineteenth century Irish/ English tensions, but it seemed exaggerated and forced. If this was typical of English sentiment towards the Irish at that time, Lib could have been much more personable if she had at least reflected on her righteousness or queried her own suppositions. The fact that Donoghue is Irish is the only reason I didn’t write off this aspect of the book.
The second problem was that this book could have been one hundred pages shorter and it wouldn’t have lost much. But I won’t bore you with what bored me.
The real nail in the coffin, however, was the writing style. Truly, I have never seen so many question marks in one book, ever. Once I registered just how often Lib was posing questions to herself, for a while I tried to find all the questions on each page first and read them before the rest of the prose, as a way of neutering their annoyance factor. That didn’t work too well. Then I tried turning them into statements as I read them. That sort of worked, but it wasn’t exactly smooth reading. In the end I gave up and just counted the questions on each page, making it into a kind of challenge.
Think I’m overstating it? Here are three quotes from one page:
The pain wasn’t Anna? The girl through whom the pain was passing wasn’t Anna? Anna wasn’t Anna? Perhaps the girl’s brain was beginning to be drained of force…
Children often preferred to be told stories rather than read them, didn’t they? Lib couldn’t think of any. Not even any songs. Anna usually sang to herself; when had the singing stopped?
Lib scrutinised the slavey’s broad features. Was that just tenderness, or was it guilt? Could it be that Kitty knew how Anna had been fed until recently, even if she hadn’t done it herself?
Yes, three quotes from one page. Does anyone else think that this is just lazy writing?
It’s a shame, isn’t it? The Wonder could have been wonderful. Instead its memorability lies in its ability to irritate.
Tell me, is this an aberration? I don’t remember Room having so many questions marks. Should I try another Emma Donoghue book (I was intending to read Slammerkin)? Friends, what should I do?