Real-life 'fasting girls' inspire mysterious tale in Emma Donoghue's 'The Wonder'

Award winning author Emma Donoghue poses for photographs, she has a new book 'The Wonder' In her hometown, London, Ont. on Sunday, Sept. 6, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dave Chidley

Award winning author Emma Donoghue poses for photographs, she has a new book 'The Wonder' In her hometown, London, Ont. on Sunday, Sept. 6, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dave Chidley

TORONTO — Celebrated author Emma Donoghue admits she has long held interest in "freakish cases," but exploring real-life tales of "fasting girls" proved particularly intriguing.

The stories, which range from the 16th to 20th century, centre on girls and women from the British Isles, western Europe and North America who supposedly survived for long periods without food.

"There (were) so many of them," said Donoghue in a recent phone interview from London, Ont.

"If this just happened once or twice you might just say: 'What a strange and interesting thing.' But it's a real phenomenon."

Nearly 50 cases served as inspiration for Donoghue's fictional exploration of the peculiarity in "The Wonder" (HarperCollins), which has been longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. The Giller short list will be announced on Monday.

Readers are transported to 1850s Ireland and introduced to Lib, an English nurse who arrives in the small town of Athlone with a tall task ahead. She must tend to Anna, an 11-year-old girl said to be living without food for a significant stretch of time.

Lib is enlisted to keep watch and determine whether Anna's case is legitimate or a fraud. Meanwhile, the girl is viewed as a mysterious marvel, with tourists flocking to see her and a journalist dispatched to cover the story.

The Dublin-born Donoghue, author of the acclaimed bestseller "Room," said she saw Ireland as the perfect setting for a story about "deliberately chosen hunger."

"We Irish define ourselves through having survived the great famine," said the award-winning writer, who lived in England for eight years before moving Canada.

"The idea of somebody defining herself through hunger struck me as Irish at its most extreme."

"The Wonder" makes several references to Lib's instructor: Florence Nightingale. The real-life nursing pioneer tended to wounded British soldiers in the 1850s Crimean War.

"I wasn't just name-dropping," Donoghue said of Nightingale's inclusion. 

"It struck me that if a nurse would be hired to do a very complicated job — which is to scrutinize somebody's behaviour for a matter of weeks — that made her an unusual kind of nurse. Because nurses in those days, so many of them were on the lowest rung of the service ladder....

"I like the idea that this nurse would have a background which made her really take her profession of nursing seriously; and yet, she finds herself in this very particular situation where she's having to be a prison guard more than a healer."

Lib also consistently butts heads with Anna's mother, Rosaleen, which was a way for Donoghue to illustrate the contrasting styles of the duelling maternal figures.

"If you have the mother who is failing to save her child, and if you have a nurse that has no official relationship with the child — but is the one really standing up for her — who is the true mother there?

"I was also interested in the moral situation of somebody who kind of hangs back and stands by, the kind of passivity of the father in the story," Donoghue said of Anna's father, Malachy. 

"I was interested in exploring different levels and different flavours of guilt."

Donoghue said one of the reasons she enjoys writing about children is exploring how they navigate the rules of the systems and societies in which they live.

"In a way, Anna is just taking all of the things the grown-ups have ever taught her — and they're taking them more literally," she said. "If she has been rewarded for eating little, for instance, it seems logical for her to go farther than that and say: 'I will eat nothing. I will be the ultimate good girl....'

"By being a little girl, Anna is in a position of having zero power. And yet, she's managed to make herself into the centre of this story all by saying no to food. So, there's a wonderful paradox there that she's powerless and yet hugely important."


Follow @lauren_larose on Twitter.