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'The Wonder' Is A Hard-To-Believe Tale Of Belief

Here is what happens in the first 100 pages of The Wonder: Lib, an English nurse in the mid-19th century, is sent to a small town in Ireland, a country whose people she instantly hates, to keep watch over a young girl who claims she has lived without food for four months. Lib watches the girl and thinks unkind things about the Irish. The girl does not eat. That is it.

After that, things get slightly more interesting, because there is no way they cannot. The Wonder, the latest novel from Room author Emma Donoghue, is a suspense novel that lacks much in the way of suspense, a psychological thriller that's more laughable than scary.

And that's a shame, because the idea behind it isn't a bad one. The center of the novel is Anna, a sweet and devout 11-year-old girl who has evidently been living on nothing but water and "manna from heaven" for months. The townspeople are mostly in awe of the child, who draws pilgrims from across the country, hoping to get a glimpse of the miracle girl.

The town's prominent residents decide to form an ad-hoc panel to test the veracity of Anna's claims — they mostly suspect she's a saint, but want to make sure they're not being conned. To that end, they recruit Lib, who trained under Florence Nightingale, as well as a local Catholic nun to keep vigil over the girl, making sure she's not sneaking food when nobody's watching.

Lib is instantly skeptical, assuming Anna is an attention-seeking fraud: "What was it about this spoiled miss that she'd managed to enrol all the grown-ups around her in this charade?" But she never witnesses the girl eat, and finds no stash of hidden food in Anna's small room. When the girl starts to become markedly ill, Lib develops misgivings about her new assignment, worrying that her presence is keeping Anna from eating, and possibly leading to the girl's untimely demise.

The reader knows that Lib is skeptical because Donoghue hammers the point home with a heroic lack of subtlety. "Evidently hordes were let in every day to grovel at the child's feet; the vulgarity of it!" she sneers. The same goes with Lib's hatred of the Irish Catholics she has inexplicably agreed to work with: They're "like babies ... babbling as they squeezed their beads," and "shiftless, thriftless, hopeless, hapless, always brooding over past wrongs."

This raises a question: If Lib is so contemptuous of the Irish people, why did she agree to take the job in the first place? "[S]he'd be quite well paid for her trouble, and the novelty of the thing held some interest," Donoghue explains. But it's hard to believe that money would be a motivating factor for a character who trained with Florence Nightingale, the nurse not heretofore known for her pursuit of wealth.

Fans of 'Room' might find something to be interested in here, but for everybody else, it's just another entry in the ever-growing catalog of mediocre suspense novels about children in pain.

Lib's assignment presents her with an obvious ethical dilemma: If her vigil stops Anna from being covertly fed, then it could end up starving the girl to death. Donoghue depicts Lib as wrestling with the predicament, but how could that even be a question for a trained medical professional? Sure, it's conceivable that a nurse might entertain the idea of letting a child die in order to expose a fraud. But even considering that would necessarily make that nurse extremely bad at her job, and Lib, by Donoghue's account, is not.

The other characters in the book are even less credible. There's Anna, a kind girl whose devotion to religion is treated like a childhood superstition. There's her family, all of whom are stereotyped yokels. And then there's William Byrne, a handsome and intelligent journalist who's described as if he were the hero of a second-rate romance novel.

The Wonder picks up a little bit of steam toward the end, but it's too little and too late. And what little suspense Donoghue manages to build is blunted by the ending, which is makes zero sense, and takes a turn for the lurid and exploitative before concluding with an unearned patness.

It didn't have to be this way. Donoghue is a talented writer, but The Wonder is as phoned-in as a novel could be. Her writing is flat and repetitive, and the plot, such as it is, is maddening. Fans of Room might find something to be interested in here, but for everybody else, it's just another entry in the ever-growing catalog of mediocre suspense novels about children in pain.

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Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.