An English nurse confronts Irish history and entrenched prejudices—some of them hers—in this stinging latest from Donoghue (Frog Music, 2014, etc.).
Lib Wright has survived the Crimean War and a failed marriage by the time she’s summoned to central Ireland to watch over 11-year-old Anna O’Donnell, whose parents claim she has eaten no food in four months. The girl’s physician, Dr. McBrearty, and a committee of local bigwigs have hired Lib and a nun to provide round-the-clock surveillance. Lib quickly realizes that Dr. McBrearty, at least, is weirdly anxious to prove the girl’s fast is no hoax, even if he deplores loose talk of a miracle. An advocate of the scientific nursing principles preached by Florence Nightingale, Lib has nothing but contempt for such an absurd idea. Yet she is charmed by Anna, as whip-smart as she is pious, and alarmed when the girl’s surprisingly robust health begins to falter shortly after the nurses’ watch begins. Clearly someone has been feeding Anna until now, but it’s also clear she believes she has eaten nothing. Lib’s solution of this riddle says nothing good about provincial Irish society in the mid-19th century, seen through her eyes as sexist, abusive, and riddled with ridiculous superstitions. Irish Times correspondent William Byrne counters with a scathing analysis of the recent potato famine, angrily instructing this blinkered Englishwoman in her nation’s culpability for mass starvation as well as the centuries of repression that have made the Irish a defensive, backward people. Nonetheless, nothing can excuse the wall of denial Lib slams into as she desperately tries to get Anna’s parents and the committee even to acknowledge how sick the child is. The story’s resolution seems like pure wish fulfillment, but vivid, tender scenes between Lib and Anna, coupled with the pleasing romance that springs up between feisty Lib and the appreciative Byrne, will incline most readers to grant Donoghue her tentative happy ending.
Her contemporary thriller Room (2010) made the author an international bestseller, but this gripping tale offers a welcome reminder that her historical fiction is equally fine.