There’s something about me that shies away from popular fiction: if others are reading it, I din’t want to get involved. Elitism, arrogance, fear of bad writing, or the fact that I hate waiting months on hold at the library! When The Wonder by Emma Donoghue finally got to me, I was excited to read it. My book club read it as a book back in January, so three month later I dove in.
I found this book extremely challenging. I was upset and angry and I was totally entranced by Donoghue’s writing. The story revolves around a young girl in Ireland, Anna, who hasn’t eaten in the four months since her eleventh birthday and first communion. The village thinks it is a miracle that she is still alive and a committee hires two nurses–one a nun and one trained by Miss Nightingale on the battlefield–to constantly watch the child to see if she is indeed a miracle. We get the story from Lib Wright’s point of view, the battlefield nurse.
A death watch. For eight hours at a time, both the Sister and Lib watch Anna starve. How can this not make you uncomfortable as a reader? At first, Donoghue draws her readers in through Lib: Lib isn’t certain how the child is still alive and there is an energy of excitement and possibility as people from all over make a pilgrimage to the lowly Irish cottage. Yet as facts are learned and the watch comes close to two weeks, thinks unravel.
If you haven’t read the book, best not to read any further. Some major spoilers are below, yet are things that I can’t not write about when I think of this novel.
Near the end of the watch two thing become apparent: 1.) The mother was feeding Anna in a bizarre way, through a holy kiss with what the mom called manna; 2.) Anna was fasting and giving her own life as a sacrifice to get her brother out of purgatory, or even hell.
What we don’t learn until the end is that Anna’s brother sexually assaulted Anna and he even called their relationship a marriage. It was sacred because they were both brother and sister and husband and wife. So here she is, eleven-year-old Anna, having learned that incest is an evil sin, fasting and praying daily to save her brother from hell. She is willing to give up her life to save her brother’s. When lib finds out about the sexual abuse, she learns that the mother, father, and priest all knew about their secret marriage and are doing nothing to stop Anna from sacrificing her life to save his.
Lib feels the same anger and disgust as the readers: Anna is made to feel that her assault is her responsibility and so the adults in her life allow her to believe that it is her duty to save her brother through fasting and prayer. After learning of Anna’s sexual assault, here are Lib’s thoughts: “Even if the fact could be proved, what lib saw as incestuous rape, others would call seduction. Wasn’t it so often the girl–no matter how young–who got blamed for having incited her molester with a look?” (Pg 262-62).
Earlier in the book, Lib is disturbed by the words of Dr. McBrearty, the old village doctor: “‘They mean to put down the flesh and raise up the spirit,’ he explained. But why does it have to be one or the other? Lib wondered. Aren’t we both?” (Pg 195).
I’m with Lib: we can’t separate our spirit from our body and what are the dangers and the consequences when that happens.
Anna’s story is troubling for so many reasons. How many women have reported sexual abuse and have had their experience dismissed? I think the the Bill Cosby and the Jian Gomeshi cases as examples. Even the RCMP is realizing that they have a problem with how they treat sexual assault allegations and are moving to reopen some cases. The Globe and Mail reports that 1 in 5 cases are dismissed. What message is that sending? What are the physical and spiritual consequences of so many people being ignored and shamed for what was done to them? In the article, reporter Robyn Doolittle writes,
Every year, an average of 5,500 people are reporting sexual violence to Canadian police, but their cases are dropping out of the system as unfounded long before a Crown prosecutor, judge or jury has a chance to weigh in.
The result is a game of chance for Canadian sex-assault complainants, whose odds of justice are determined not only by the facts of their case, but by where the crime took place, which police force picks up their file, and what officer shows up at their door.
This is not acceptable. In the 1850s, when this book is set, this is not acceptable. In 2017, this is not acceptable. Yet why does it continue to happen? Teaching consent is something that needs to happen at home and at school.
That’s why I love this video about consent. Really, it’s simple. Anything that denies consent is assault. Until society changes how it views consent and sex, nothing will really change.
Because this is the spoiler section, I have to say that I loved the ending of this book. Lib, the nurse, kidnaps Anna with Anna’s consent. Anna dies, as Lib stages a fire. In reality, Nan is rescued and taken to Australia to begin her life over again with adults who will hopefully listen to her and teach her to love herself again.