The author of The Master’s Muse (2012) explores a Victorian craze.
The “fasting girl” was one of the more horrifying phenomena of the Victorian era in the United Kingdom and the United States. These were little girls and young women who supposedly went for long periods of time without food or drink. Sarah Jacob, a girl living in rural Wales, stopped eating when she was 10 years old. Her home became a pilgrimage site. She was the subject of an article in The Lancet and something of an international sensation. More than a hundred weeks into her supposed fast, she died, and her parents were convicted of manslaughter. O’Connor (The Master’s Muse, 2012, etc.) faced a number of challenges in turning this historical vignette into a novel. The first—and by no means the smallest—is that Sarah Jacob has already gotten the fiction treatment in Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder (2016), a widely reviewed book by a bestselling author. The second is that Sarah Jacob is a child who spends two years lying in bed. If a story about her is going to succeed, the author either needs to take us into her world or surround her with characters who make compelling sense of her world. O’Connor doesn’t quite manage either. The primary narrator—at the beginning, at least—is an American journalist whose husband died reporting on the Civil War. The editor of a Brooklyn newspaper sends her to write dispatches on this fasting girl. Christine’s interactions with Sarah don’t amount to much, though, nor do readers get much insight into Christine as a person. As the novel progresses, the author keeps adding points of view, but none of them get the reader any closer to the central mystery of Sarah’s fast. Instead, O’Connor chooses to make all things clear by giving Sarah a beyond-the-grave soliloquy. And this is a little more than halfway through the book, when there’s still the inquest and trial to go.
Tough topic rendered in sluggish prose.