THE WONDER by Emma Neale

As the days go by since I finished this, my admiration and respect for this novel, both for its storyline and for its writing increases. Incredibly atmospheric, the poverty and despair of mid-19th century Ireland, combined with the rampant folk superstition and blind faith in the church pervades every page, every conversation. The arrival into the community of a nurse, Lib, veteran of the Crimea War, and trained by the amazing Florence Nightingale herself, with her modern and practical ideas, challenges everything this community holds dear.

The Wonder is an 11 year old girl - Anna - who has not eaten for some months, and is being hailed as a religious miracle for her ability to still be alive. Lib has been engaged by some community leaders to watch over Anna, sharing the task with an elderly nun. With her fact-based medical background Lib knows something is not quite right with this child still being alive after so many months of apparently self-starvation and she is determined to uncover the hoax. She is facing an uphill struggle in this very Catholic community, plus the threat she is posing to the  increased income showing Anna off to believing visitors is bringing to the family.

Lib remains stoic and focused in her mission, however as the days go by, she realises there is much more to Anna's fasting than is immediately obvious. She finds that her reason for being there is changing, leading her to make some tough and brave decisions.

This book grew on me so much as the story unfolded. It took a while for me to fully engage with what was taking place, but was certainly well worth persevering with. The writer evokes so well the precarious existence of the Irish at this time, the dirt, squalor, hopelessness, the hold the church has over the minutiae of daily life. It was gloomy and depressing to read a lot of this. The frustrating struggle Lib has when she blows into the community like an unwanted wind shows how  far apart people can be in their combined mission of looking after an 11 year old child. 

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