In a novel that feels both sharply realistic and wildly, indelibly imaginative, O’Reilly (The Fine Color of Rust, 2012, etc.) offers a story about the stars of an impossible, glamorous freak show that sidesteps any expectations of sentimental quirk with wit and deep feeling.
The Wonders are three people who survive miraculous medical treatments and are left with unusual, beautiful physical anomalies that thrust them into a world of celebrity. Leon Hyland, a lonely and bookish man from Australia, is on his third heart, a mechanical metal implant suspended in a hole that goes straight through his chest. Kathryn Damon, a prickly and voluptuous Irishwoman, undergoes an experimental treatment for Huntington’s disease that brings her health and covers her body in black lamb’s wool. Christos Petridis, a volatile Greek performance artist, has metal wings transplanted into his back. Oddities and freaks, they find themselves brought together by Rhona Burke, a brash lady impresario who fashions them into international stars and makes them both fabulously wealthy and hysterically adored. The novel stays close to Leon, following him as he struggles against hesitation and anxiety, longing so desperately to be seen and then slamming into the treachery of fame. It unfurls in vivid, precisely imagined images that give even the most fantastical details a solid reality. The characters, with all their unlikely histories, have the weight and imperfections of real people, and the reader can follow them with pleasure, always trusting O’Reilly to care for their sympathies with humor, charm and a broad range of feeling, taking them from delirious circus scenes to genuine tragedy.
The impossible slides skillfully into the believable here; O’Reilly’s delightful novel never shirks its responsibility to emotional truth as it tells a story about being known and being different.