A New York Times book review by Stephen King. A version of this review appears in print on October 2, 2016, on page BR14 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: A Hunger of the Soul.
Stephen King Reviews Emma Donoghue’s Latest Novel
By Emma Donoghue
291 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $27.
“He made some remark about the dead.”
Food is the dominant chord that runs through “The Wonder,” because the girl Lib has been hired to observe — along with a mostly silent nun named Sister Michael — is said to have taken none at all since her 11th birthday, four months previous. Yet she is supposedly healthy and vital, a true wonder child in a century famous for its wonders (many of which, like the Cardiff Giant and the Davenport Tablets, later proved hoaxes). Lib and Sister Michael’s job is to watch the girl day and night, in eight-hour shifts, to make sure no one is slipping her chow on the sly.
In an author’s note, Donoghue says that “The Wonder” was inspired by almost 50 cases of “so-called Fasting Girls” between the 16th and 20th centuries, but the case that most closely resembles the one in her novel is that of Sarah Jacob, a Welsh child of 12 who was said to have gone without food for more than two years. After her story was reported, a team of nurses was hired to keep watch and discover if the girl really was fasting. This close observation began on the 9th of December, 1869. Sarah Jacob died of starvation a week later. The following year, her parents were tried for manslaughter, convicted and sent to prison.
After making my way through several recent novels written in tiresome hey-look-at-me prose (Emma Cline’s “The Girls” comes to mind), “The Wonder” arrived as a welcome relief. Donoghue’s prose is as sturdy and serviceable as a good pair of brogans, but never nondescript. There are occasional flashes of lyricism — “a cloud loosely bandaged the waning moon,” for instance, a line of perfect description couched in perfect iambic pentameter — but Donoghue’s main purpose here is story, story, story, and God bless her for it.
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