Emma Donoghue on fasting, famine and children in peril

The author of Room talks about her new novel, The Wonder.

Emma Donoghue has shown that she can bring any historical period to life and make it feel important to her readers. Her books have a sense of urgency and psychological suspense, underpinned by imaginative prose. In her new novel, The Wonder, Donoghue returns to her native Ireland. Set in the 1850s, the book explores the story of a young girl in a small village who stops eating, but mysteriously stays alive. Miracle, or hoax? An English nurse is brought in to keep watch and to determine the truth.

Emma Donoghue was born and raised in Ireland, but since 1998 she and her family have made their home in London, Ont., which is where she was when she spoke with The Next Chapter host Shelagh Rogers.

Examining the stories of the "fasting girls"

They were sometimes called "miraculous maidens," but more often they were known as "fasting girls." I'm not suggesting there were ever lots of them at the same time, but cases pop up — roughly 50 cases between the 16th and 20th centuries. Every now and then, a young female, typically a girl or a young woman, will hit the headlines for apparently living without food. And these cases fascinate me, because they can be seen most obviously as an equivalent of what we now call anorexia, but they often included very strange other factors. Religion, for instance, but in some cases the sheer longing for fame — you could see them as part of the freak show tradition as well.

A story of hunger, against a backdrop of famine

In a way, hunger is part of [Ireland's] pride, our makeup. I thought it would be very interesting to set a story of voluntary fasting against the backdrop of the famine. The famine is one of these things I've never written about directly, because it's almost too big and too brutal. I thought if I set the story in the 1850s, I could show the long shadow. Even in my day, there were little remnants of the long shadow of the famine — a feeling that you shouldn't eat too much, you shouldn't want food too much, you should leave a little bit on your plate. So there's always been that slightly penitential strand of Catholicism in Ireland, a feeling of "don't overindulge," which I find adds a very interesting context to a story of apparently miraculous fasting.

Young minds, harsh rules and unexpected consequences

​I think kids are amazingly pragmatic. Whatever situation you raise them in, they will just learn those rules, both written and unwritten. In the case of Anna O'Donnell in my novel, she's taken the system of religion she's being raised in, which was the particularly punative post-famine Irish Catholicism, and she's working within that system. She's trying to be as good, as powerful, as impressive, as important as she can, simply by taking those harsh rules very literally. She's being raised in a culture where if you're a good girl and don't eat everything on your plate you'll be rewarded, and she's just taking that to its logical extreme. 

Emma Donoghue's comments have been edited and condensed.