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Emma Donoghue's New Novel Follows "The Wonder" Of Starvation


Is a little girl in Ireland who says she is kept alive solely by her faith a miracle, a hoax, a sign of God's love or a slow-motion homicide or suicide? Anna O'Donnell, an 11-year-old girl in village Ireland, not long after the Great Famine, refuses to eat and says she's been kept alive by manna from heaven.

Lib Wright is a young English nurse who's brought in to care for her as the little girl becomes an object of veneration to many and suspicion to some. As Anna's health begins to flag, Lib begins to wonder how she can do the best for her patient and the village that's been so delighted by what they're convinced is a miracle in their midst.

"The Wonder" is Emma Donoghue's new novel, following the worldwide success of "Room." She joins us now from the CBC in London, Ontario. Thanks so much for being with us.

EMMA DONOGHUE: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: There really were a group of what we now call fasting girls in the British Isles, weren't there?

DONOGHUE: Yes. Well, a group over a long period - they are really a recurring phenomenon. Every now and then, in Western countries ranging from the U.S. to Canada to Ireland to England, continental Europe, over, let's say, the 16th century to the 20th - every now and then, a young woman would hit the headlines for appearing to live without food. And it's a phenomenon that has fascinated me for the last two decades.

SIMON: But this is a novel not based on any particular case.

DONOGHUE: That's true. I drew inspiration from details of many of these cases. But - and this is an entirely invented story. And that allowed me to set it in the context that I found richest for this kind of story.

I set in my homeland of Ireland but in the decade after our Great Famine because I wanted to set the idea of voluntary starving against the appalling context of involuntary starving. And I also wanted to draw on the cultural background that I know best, which is Irish Catholicism.

SIMON: And how does - Lib is the British nurse who comes in. How does her experience - recent experience - as a nurse in the Crimean War affect what she sees when she looks at this little girl?

DONOGHUE: Well, I knew that this nurse would be in the very peculiar position of being hired as kind of a jailer. And this part of the novel was inspired by several real cases where a staff of hired watchers were brought in to make sure that the faster wasn't eating. And I thought this put a trained nurse in a very peculiar position where she really wasn't nursing. She was guarding, you know...

SIMON: Yeah.

DONOGHUE: ...More like Grace Poole in "Jane Eyre." So I wanted to give Lib a background which would make it clear that she was a really zealous and trained nurse. And really, in the 1850s, the only ones around were the ones from the Crimean. Before that, nursing was a very low-level domestic service.

So I wanted to give Lib a background in real, gripping life-and-death situations. And so she would find it in congress that now she's, you know, taking part in some kind of, you know, bizarre play where her job is just to stare at this little girl all day and make sure she's not eating.

SIMON: And it turns out, of course, that the little girl, Anna O'Donnell, is not a blank slate. She's already had a lot of experience.

DONOGHUE: Yes. And that's a wonderful paradox about children - that they may not have lived very long. But they are very much themselves as soon as they come out into the world. And also, they soak up the explicit or unwritten rules around them.

So Anna is a very powerless little girl. You know, she's growing up in an era where young women had zero political power. And she's from a poor family. But she has decided to be the best little Catholic girl she can be. And she's taken the grownups very seriously. She's taken their rules very literally. And she's taken it all to a great extreme.

And here, I didn't really want to focus purely on Catholicism. I'm very interested in how idealistic young people can get caught up in all sorts of systems of extreme belief, you know, whether it's cults or whether it's suicide bombers. And there are so many examples today of how the kind of wonderful zealousness and unquestioning loyalty of young people can be harnessed by all sorts of insidious powers.

SIMON: You're the daughter of Denis Donoghue.

DONOGHUE: Yes, who's, you know, thriving, still, as a critic. He's going strong in his later 80s.

SIMON: Yeah, well, one of the great critics, I think it's safe to say, of our times. (Laughter) Is it hard to write fiction when you have a father with such elevated tastes?

DONOGHUE: It would be worse if he wrote fiction (laughter). I was planning to become a professor of English like him. So there, I really would have been in his shadow terribly. So I was quite relieved when I realized I was going to be a jobbing writer instead and move sideways.

No, it's not hard. It was a very inspiring childhood I had, you know, going on long walks with my father. And he'd suddenly start talking about James Joyce, for instance. He was wonderfully helpful to me when I was studying English.

And ever since, he's given me a lot of good ideas for my writing. He always has some thoughtful remark or relevant book that I should be reading - whatever I'm writing. So yes, I always wince a little bit when I send me to each of my new books. I wince at submitting myself to his judgment. But, of course, he's such a fond father that he always writes back, saying it's the greatest thing ever written.

SIMON: "The Wonder," of course, as we mentioned, follows the enormous success of "Room." You know, there's a whole big world out there. Are you worried about getting typecast as a one-room novelist?

DONOGHUE: Well, you know, you could say that to every playwright who's ever set their play in one place over one evening with just a few people. There's a lot to be said from the technical point of view for the unities of time, space and action.

You know, if you think of every locked-room murder mystery, it intensifies the heat. It turns up the heat under a narrative when you limit the characters in their movements or their freedoms. So much as I enjoy big novels of epic sweep, I often find, say, if they follow several generations, by the third generation, I'm not caring about the people anymore.

So I really like to keep my palette small but to be very intense, very myopic. Sometimes, I think there's a lack of ambition in me. But then sometimes, I think, no, you can, like William Blake said, you know, see heaven in a grain of sand. If you look really, really closely at a situation, you can find almost endless interest in it.

So no, I don't think that, say, "Room" and "The Wonder" have that much in common apart from the fact that they're about an adult-child relationship. And there's a certain claustrophobia. They're set in very different worlds. And they're about different things. And the crucial difference for me is that in the case of "The Wonder," nobody's keeping this child indoors. And the limits are all in her head. It's a very different situation. And the trap she's in is a psychological one.

SIMON: Emma Donoghue - her novel "The Wonder." Thanks so much for being with us.

DONOGHUE: It's been great fun. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.