Courtesy of Nina Subin.
With page-turners like the 2010 prize-winning Room, Emma Donoghue has proved she has a dark yet deeply compassionate mind. The lesbian novelist’s latest, The Wonder, is the story of Lib, an English nurse trained under Florence Nightingale who is hired to observe Anna O’Donnell, a young Irish Catholic girl said to have been living without food for four months.
The Wonder is historical fiction, but its theme of science versus religion feels as relevant as ever.
Definitely. I was struck by cases today of teenagers signing on to fundamentalism. I’d never write historical fiction that didn’t feel burningly relevant.
Lib witnesses such rigidity in the O’Donnell family. Is there room for a less strict faith?
Of course. I wanted to show appreciation for what religion gives characters like Anna. She’s poor, female, young, powerless. Catholicism was good at making the losers of the world feel holy—like saints, even. But Irish Catholicism in the Victorian era was also body-hating and sex-hating. I shuddered through my research, discovering how nasty it was.
How do you decide what to write next — a modern or historical novel?
When I write about historical cases, they’ve often made an impression on me years before. I don’t rush. I want to be sure I’m obsessed long enough to do it. It’s like having a garden. You do the groundwork, and then the time comes to plant the seed.
Purchase The Wonder here.
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