Novel Review: The Wonder

Irish/Canadian author Emma Donoghue is best-known for her complex, character-driven psychological thriller Room (adapted as both film and play) and her unusual historical novel Frog Music. She would seem an odd match for this site, but her 2016 novel, The Wonder, raises questions about science, the supernatural, and the lenses through which we observe the world.

In 1859, a Nightingale nurse accepts a job in a remote Irish village, for a patient who appears to defy the known laws of nature.

Title: The Wonder
Author: Emma Donoghue

First published on September 20, 2016

ISBN-10: 1443450022
ISBN-13: 978-1443450027
Available from, Amazon,, and as a kindle.


Really, thought Lib, who ever died exultingly? Whatever fool penned that phrase had never sat by a bed with his ears pricked for the last rasp.

Anna has apparently not eaten in the months since her eleventh birthday, and her supposed miraculous nature has drawn both pilgrims and ridicule. A local committee appoints two nurses, one a devout Roman Catholic nun and the other a skeptical, Nightingale-trained widow, to observe the girl, to confirm whether the case is a hoax, or a genuine mystery.

Regardless of whether the confluent forces are paranormal or earthly, will such a watch disrupt and fundamentally change them? And, in that case, will our dedicated nurses become complicit in a death?

High Points:

The novel concerns itself with the journey more than the ultimate solution. The early stages of that journey prove mystifying and disturbing, and Donaghue depicts the psychology of characters and culture with remarkable clarity– especially given how much people obscure their motivations from themselves.

Low Point:

Donaghue, in many ways a traditional novelist, believes in gradual development and revelation. This particular novel develops a little too gradually, and parts feel redundant.

The Scores:

Originality: 3/6 Donaghue does wonders with her premise, which has been influenced by a handful of historical cases. While I enjoyed the book, it ranks among the most conventional she has written.

Imagery: 6/6 The writer has a remarkable eye for apt detail and vivid description. We discover the alien world that is the past gradually, in an oft-unbalancing manner.

Story: 4/6 I found myself surprised by twists in the first half, and anticipating those in the second. The story, in the end, is about the characters’ journeys, the process of solving the mystery, rather than the ultimately predictable solution itself.

This is good, since the plot goes astray with an unexpected love interest who appears to have wandered in from the romance section, and an overly optimistic ending that may please many readers but which staggers belief. In a story that takes seriously the complexity of the world and the human personality, simple answers feel out of place.

Characterization: 5/6 We may learn too little about the secondary characters, but Lib and Anna have been written with stunning complexity.

Emotional Response: 5/6

Editing: 5/6

Overall score: 5/6 The book explores the complexity of human motivations, and also the nature of belief, mysticism, and science. As in speculative fiction, The Wonder examines the various assumptions that inform our interpretation of the world, and the problems that arise when circumstances challenges those assumptions.

In total, The Wonder receives 33/42