This year, for the first time ever, I read (or mostly read) all of the Giller Prize Nominees. I reviewed this year's Giller Prize winner, Madeleine Thien, way back in July just after I finished her book Do Not Say We Have Nothing. I stick by my initial judgement that it was and is one of the best books I've read this year.
But, I never did talk about the other titles on the list. So I'll catch up this week on the other four titles which I read in full. I was not able to finish Yiddish for Pirates, I found it too antic for my tastes.
I'll begin with a historical novel set in Ireland.
The Wonder / Emma Donoghue
Toronto: HarperCollins, c2016.
It's the Irish Midlands, circa 1850. Lib Wright is a Nightingale trained nurse hired to keep watch, alongside the restrained Sister Michael, on Anna O'Donnell, a young Irish girl said to have been fasting for 4 months. She's been hired to ascertain the truth of this claim, though the committee who've hired her seem to believe it completely, and are eager to have confirmation of this "wonder". Religious superstition drives the fast and the reactions to it; Donoghue looks at what happens when religiosity overtakes a sense of reality and causes harm to living beings.
Lib knows from the beginning that this has to be a hoax; it isn't possible to live for four months without food. But how is it being done? In her time at Anna's bedside she gets to know the family a bit more, and to form a relationship with Anna, a bright, open-hearted child who is sadly wasting away.
Eventually Lib realizes that she is going to have to act, to step up in the face of the family and community's belief in Anna's fast and potential sainthood, in order to save her from the clearly evident threat of death by starvation. And she'll have to find courage and cunning, and partners in unexpected places, in order to do so.
The suffocating dogma surrounding Anna is hard to fight. But it's clear that there comes a time when an observer must become an actor to save an individual life. It's a powerful message.
I liked this story; it's definitely full of historical context, has an intriguing setting and powerful premise. I felt there were flaws though, primarily in Lib's character. She is so clueless, taking forever to catch on to things immediately obvious to the reader, in order to keep the story going. If she'd seen everything at first it would have been a short tale indeed. And her eventual salvation is heavily dependent on a romance with a journalist, who takes a role in her plan to save Anna. The romance is bland; I would have never guessed at its existence without being told directly that it was there -- there was no feel of it in the narrative, to me.
But overall, it was a solid story, keeping you reading with its plot, and making a great choice for a book club who wants to discuss what you might do in Lib's place or in any similar situation you might find yourself in. Donoghue never tells the same story twice, and in this one she investigates how far people are willing to go when balancing lives and beliefs. Well worth reading now.