Tag Archives: emma donoghue

Review: The Wonder

Here I am, checking another last-minute item off my 2017 reading challenge with Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder.

About the book: Nurse Lib Wright trainedthewonder under the famous Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, but three years later her career has come down to spending two weeks with an impoverished family in Ireland, making sure an eleven year-old girl doesn’t eat. Anna, the “miraculous” child who claims to have been surviving for four months without food, has been generating a lot of attention. She has fans and believers knocking on the door every day, but there are skeptics as well, and even worse, the folk who accuse the family of terrible trickery or abuse. Lib and another nurse have been called in to watch over the child every moment of every day for two weeks, to set the public straight at last on whether or not any morsel of food is passing into Anna O’Donnell’s mouth. Lib expects to have discovered the trick to the ruse within a matter of hours, or days at most, but instead she encounters many surprises. As the first week turns into the second, Lib questions what she thought she knew, what her job requires, and how far a caretaker should go to ensure her patient’s health.

“How could the child bear not just the hunger, but the boredom? The rest of humankind used meals to divide the day, Lib realized– as reward, as entertainment, the chiming of an inner clock. For Anna, during this watch, each day had to pass like one endless moment.”

The narrator’s skepticism is over-the-top in the beginning. From the premise of the book alone, I knew that there was some question, some mystery, as to whether Anna was indeed a miracle. Lib is so certain that she is not, and that someone in the house is slipping food to her in a way that the nurses will easily detect, that she is completely blinded to other possibilities. It is not until her mind opens to other suggestions that Lib becomes an interesting character. Her doubt makes her more dynamic. She quickly grew on me then, though I did not particularly like her until this predictable line on page 11 (more than a third of the way through the book, my only real complaint about The Wonder):

“It was then, sitting up in the dark, that it occurred to her for the first time: What if Anna wasn’t lying?”

And yet, even in those hundred-plus pages before the characters become so much more sympathetic, the mystery of Anna’s health drives the reader forward. The Wonder is set in mid 1800’s Ireland, touches on the seven year famine of only a few years before, and makes the reader fully aware of every bite they eat while reading. It raises awareness for those people who cannot eat, who cannot afford to eat, who choose not to eat. It brushes against the history of nursing, and the legality that’s tied to healthcare. The Wonder is rooted in Irish customs, filled with historic ways of life and turns of phrase from that country’s culture, and yet its topics feel relevant today, across oceans. There are still eating disorders, parents making choices for their children, children becoming unwittingly involved in problems far bigger than themselves. Donoghue does an excellent job of grounding this novel in the past without alienating modern readers.

“That was what hunger could do: blind you to everything else.”

But the most notable element for me is the religion found within the book. The Wonder is a perfect example of a novel that deals heavily with religion– in this case, Catholicism– without becoming inaccessible or burdensome to readers of other denominations. It neither advocates for or against the religion, though it contains key characters from both sides of the debate. Even though Anna’s and Lib’s experiences with religion have shaped them and play important roles in the events of this story, the reader does not close the book with a sense that Catholicism is “right” or “wrong,” or that any of The Wonder‘s characters have been especially victimized or liberated by their religion or lack thereof. The focus lies on the characters, not their church. It’s a refreshing view.

“That had probably been the making of the man. Not so much the loss itself as his surviving it, realizing that it was possible to fail and start again.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I had only read Donoghue’s Room before picking up The Wonder, which I enjoyed though it didn’t send me out immediately searching for more books by the same author. However, The Wonder came as a pleasant surprise– it’s nothing like Room, but it’s a strong novel anyway. Some authors tend to write the same worlds and stories over and over again with surface changes only, but The Wonder proved to me that Donoghue has a good range, and it encouraged me to keep an eye out for more Donoghue books I might want to check out in the future. None of her other already-published books are calling out to me, but I’ll definitely watch for upcoming releases.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you like reading about women who see something they don’t like in the world and set out to change it, try Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings. This one deals with racism and feminism rather than religion and health, but I think readers of either of these books would enjoy the other. They both tackle serious topics from the perspective of a woman who is used to being overlooked or looked down upon, and are packed with both history and lessons for the modern reader.
  2. If you’re looking for more Donoghue, I do suggest picking up her older novel Room if you haven’t done so already. The difficult themes handled here are rape and imprisonment, but different though Room is from The Wonder, its subjects are handled just as tastefully and powerfully. Also, the novel is narrated primarily from the young child’s point of view, which adds an extra level of intrigue to an unusual situation.
  3. If you’re most interested in Anna’s part of the story and want a YA option for further reading on negative adult influence toward the children in their care, try Robin Roe’s A List of Cages, narrated from two teen perspectives and focused on the abuse of the foster system. This one also deals with mental health in children.

Coming up next: I have several short classics coming up as I work through the rest of my reading challenge list. I usually don’t review classics, but since I’ll have more than one this month I’m going to post mini-reviews for each of them instead of longer paragraphs in my monthly wrap-up. I’m currently reading Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, an epistolary novel set in 1930’s Georgia and focusing on racism.


The Literary Elephant

Review: Room

Summer is great for easy reads, but every now and then it’s good to pick up something really thought-provoking; Emma Donoghue’s Room is a perfect choice for that.


I’d been meaning to read this book for years, and finally I walked past it on the library shelf and decided it was time to pick it up. It’s so captivating that I read it in three days even though there were several times I had to put the book down just to take it all in. Room is definitely the sort of book that leaves you wondering about the state of humanity and the strength that people can summon to cope with the impossible. As kids, we’re warned about Stranger Danger, but it never seems like something that could happen to you–but then there are stories like Room that remind us anything can happen, to anyone.

About the book: Five year-old Jack has lived all of his life locked in the single room of an old garden shed with his mother, who was kidnapped from college about seven years before the book’s opening. The room is soundproofed, has a single skylight, is lined with cork squares, and was built with lengths of chain link fencing inside the walls and even under the floor. Their captor is a mean, selfish man who abuses Jack’s mother, spends very little money on their care, and overpowers them easily. Jack’s Ma allows very little contact between Jack and the kidnapper Jack refers to as Old Nick–it’s the one thing she asks, to keep Jack to herself. She and Jack spend their days keeping their one room tidy, exercising their bodies and minds as much as possible, and telling stories. When Jack turns five, his mother decides it’s time to share the most important story of all with him: the truth about the outside world.

” ‘I told you, it’s not TV. It’s the real world, you wouldn’t believe how big it is.’ Her arms shoot out, she’s pointing at all the walls. ‘Room’s only a tiny stinky piece of it.’… ‘I wouldn’t lie to you about this,’ Ma says while I’m slurping the juice. ‘I couldn’t tell you before, because you were too small to understand, so I guess I was sort of lying to you then. But now you’re five, I think you can understand.’ “

Jack has a hard time understanding and believing in the outside world. All he’s ever known is life between the four walls of Room where he shares everything with his mother and hides at night in Wardrobe from Old Nick, the only visitor he’s ever known.

Narrated by the young Jack, Room is described as a home, a safe place. Outside, everything is unknown and scary. Everything in Room has a name and a story, including Meltedy Spoon, Spaghetti Mobile, and Rug. Jack was born on Rug, so that’s one of his favorites. Sometimes Jack’s perspective is too limited, but dialogue fills in the gaps. He’s a smart child, with a million questions and an adorable thought process:

“The sea’s real, I’m just remembering. It’s all real in Outside, everything there is, because I saw the airplane in the blue between the clouds. Ma and me can’t go there because we don’t know the secret code, but it’s real all the same. Before I didn’t even know to be mad that we can’t open Door, my head was too small to have Outside in it. When I was a little kid I thought like a little kid, but now I’m five I know everything.”

Through Jack’s eyes, we see his mother’s story, as well. She’s very open and honest with him about her life, and she’s been his sole companion for so long that he’s finely attuned to her mannerisms and knows all of her stories by heart. He’s her sounding board, her reason to keep going, and everything else. Because this is primarily Jack’s story, his mother remains unnamed, referred to only as Ma by her son, who is shocked to learn that she has other names, as well. Even when he finally hears about her life before Room, she is first and foremost Jack’s mother.

” ‘Listen, Jack. Are you listening?’ / ‘I’m always listening.’ / ‘We have to get out of here.’ / I stare at her. / ‘And we have to do it all by ourselves.’ / But she said we were like in a book, how do people in a book escape from it? / ‘We need to figure out a plan.’ Her voice is all high. / ‘Like what?’ / ‘I don’t know, do I? I’ve been trying to think of one for seven years.’ “

For Jack’s mother, escape is vital. She feels caged, helpless, and claustrophobic. She knows Jack would be better off growing up outside, but she will need his help to escape and she needs to time her attempt so that he’s not too young to understand but not too old that he’ll be irreversibly damaged from the years he’s lost inside Room. Being captives keeps them close, but has no other benefits–and yet, perhaps it’s Outside that poses the greatest threats to Jack. Having never been exposed to ordinary aspects of life, like weather, animals, other children, or fire, the world is a dangerous place for him. He’s never even had a pair of shoes. Maybe he doesn’t even want to escape.

Something I didn’t like: The door to Room is locked with a key code which only Old Nick knows. Jack mentions once that he and his mother play a game that involves pushing random numbers into the keypad, but this only comes up once and Jack and his mother seem to spend very little time trying to guess the code. They try screaming toward the skylight to attract attention, and Jack’s mother switches the lamp on and off in the dead of night to try sending an SOS signal, but for as badly as she wants to escape it’s hard to believe she hasn’t spent every one of those seven days fiddling with the keypad, watching Old Nick’s hand when he presses the buttons, and counting the number of digits he enters. The keypad is the obstacle between her and freedom, but the only times she talks about it are to say she doesn’t know the code and can’t convince Old Nick to tell her. A ton of combinations could be tried in the space of seven years. Even if she tries every day and still can’t figure it out, it’s a little disappointing that the keypad isn’t mentioned more often or with more significance.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Room is an incredibly powerful story about coping in times of distress, raising a child, and fighting against the odds. It leaves the reader thinking about the pros and cons of modern culture, the often-overlooked dangers of our world, and the choices and challenges of motherhood. I wished Donoghue had spent more of the book describing regular days in Room–even after all of its features and routines had been laid out, I think the writing could have been used to convey the sense of monotony and claustrophobia that must plague Jack’s mother to add even more tension to her desire and plans to escape. A certain amount of the horror and difficulty of captivity in a small locked room is inherent in the very idea of the story’s premise, and Jack isn’t the one who feels the urge to flee, but Jack must be able to see how uncomfortable his mother is in Room and make a greater point of it. Still, even with the full impact of Room reserved for the end of the story, it’s a bone-chilling feeling to imagine what being kidnapped might feel like, and this book definitely makes an impact.

Further recommendations:

  1. Flowers in the Attic by V. C. Andrews is an even-creepier book about captivity. In this one, there are four children who are locked away by their mother and grandmother, presumably to keep them safe and help secure funds for their futures, but months pass and they discover horrible secrets about the family that leave them dying to escape.
  2. If reading from the stalker’s perspective interests you, check out Caroline Kepnes’ novel, You, which you can find my review of here. Joe is a young man with a skewed view of reality, but you may occasionally find yourself sympathizing with him against all odds.

What’s next: I’m currently reading The Secret History by Donna Tart. It’s a great book about a young man who goes off to college and gets mixed up in an elite society when he tries to sign up for a Greek class. The other five students in the Greek program become his close friends, but Richard soon learns that they’re keeping a terrible secret, and something even worse looms ahead–and this time, Richard will be involved. Stay tuned to learn more about the mysterious lives of the strangest Greek class to ever exist.

Books are the only acceptable captors. Stay safe,

The Literary Elephant