“I have tried to use memory and invention together, like two hands engaged in the same muddy work of digging up the past,” explains the Irish-Canadian writer Emma Donoghue in the foreword to a collection of her short stories, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits (2002). She quotes approvingly from Monique Wittig’s feminist novel Les Guérillères, published in 1969, the year Donoghue was born. “You say that you have lost memory. Remember. Try to remember, or, failing that, invent,” Wittig advised. Donoghue’s new novel, The Wonder, is her ninth; her first, Stir Fry, was published in 1994. For twenty-three years she has been excavating the boundaries between fact and fiction, purposefully muddying the historical record.
The Wonder is set in 1859: an annus mirabilis for literature, when George Eliot published her first novel, Adam Bede, and A Tale of Two Cities was serialized in Charles Dickens’s new weekly journal All the Year Round. These are the texts Donoghue’s main character Elizabeth (Lib) Wright reads, as she keeps her vigil over a fasting girl in a village at “the dead center” of Ireland. Lib, trained as a nurse by Florence Nightingale in the Crimea, arrives from England to help determine whether eleven-year-old Anna O’Donnell’s claim to have eaten nothing for four months is genuine or a hoax.
While the plot turns on a tense question of medical truth, questions of literary authenticity also arise as Donoghue exposes her own pastiche. Lib is first described journeying in an uncomfortable coach toward her new employment in passages that recall Jane Eyre. A few pages later, after being told that her only duty will be to watch Anna, Lib thinks of “that awful nurse in Jane Eyre, charged with keeping the lunatic hidden away in the attic.” There is homage here to Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s feminist classic The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (1979). Donoghue’s first book, Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668–1801 (1993), was a work of straight academic literary criticism. Without abandoning her enthusiasm for research and obscure archives, she has given priority to writing fiction—novels, short stories, and plays—ever since.
Historical fiction is not a uniform genre, and contemporary practitioners—Peter Carey, Tracy Chevalier, Hilary Mantel, Rose Tremain, and Sarah Waters, among many and various others—do not aspire toward the same ends. The ugly 1960s neologism “faction,” meaning a blend of fact and fiction in which real events are used as a basis for fictional narrative or dramatization, is a blunt, unhelpful word for capturing the interest here. In Donoghue’s case the point of combining fact and invention is profoundly subversive. The Wonder is a narrative vortex within which the old authority of religion and the new authority of science are simultaneously shattered.
Donoghue’s novel draws…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.