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For a good time, you could always watch someone not eat. The world has a long history of fascination with anorexic saints and fakirs and "fasting girls." In one of Kafka's last stories, A Hunger Artist, people queue to look at an astonishing man who survives weeks without food. The man is displayed outside "on fine days … particularly for children." Adults go for the hell of it, but the kids stare "amazed, mouths open, holding one another's hands for safety." Children, and their perspective, are the core of the story.

Emma Donoghue's previous novel, Room, hit it out of the park using a small boy's voice. In The Wonder, Donoghue returns to the subject of children, creating a Victorian version of the hunger artist in Anna O'Donnell, a poor Irish 11-year-old. Having ceased to eat after her first communion months before, Anna is being tested by a local committee with an eye to securing fame for their village. Enter Lib Wright, a proud and prickly English nurse, hired to watch the girl day and night to see if she's secretly taking nourishment. The Wonder doesn't quite keep up with the earlier novel's thunder, but it has the same keen observational power.

Observing is this story's reason for existing, and through Lib, we see Anna in the minutest detail. The whites of her eyes are "porcelain," and she's "chilly to the touch, as if she'd just come in from walking in a snowstorm." Descriptions such as this shine, but the watching without real incident or change goes on for a long time. As in Room, Donoghue uses a tight viewpoint and a claustrophobic setting of "one small chamber," which make pacing difficult here where the plot is quieter. The hidden cause of Anna's condition isn't hard to guess, making Lib seem slightly dim in the first sections. The whole novel picks up in the second half, when we learn more about Lib's own life, and she's shaken out of her trance.

Donoghue is a great Victorianist, as she's shown in The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits and The Sealed Letter. In The Wonder, she carries on picking up some of the era's finest weirdnesses, such as photography of the dead. She paints superb impressionistic scenes of Lib training under Florence Nightingale ("Miss N.") amid the horrors of the Crimean War; a separate section on Lib's experiences there would have had legs. As intrigued by children as were many 19th-century philosophers, Donoghue beautifully traces Anna's beliefs and misunderstandings through all their warrens, having Lib wonder if children can ever be considered "of sound mind." The waltz of belief and disbelief, religion and science, is very well executed. "Science was the most magical force Lib knew," and God is "the most ingenious of engineers," the novel says, summing up a whole Victorian mindset succinctly, and giving a strong sense of the characters' reality.

The book also hints at unreality, though, and the idea of time being out of joint. It creates a taste for more of the eerie possibilities of sainthood or magic. The holy cards Anna plays with, covered in strange drawings and lines about Jesus and Mary and saints, are as fantastical as the rag-covered fairy tree down the way. The clash of English and Irish is played up throughout – Lib first sees Anna as "a great liar in a country famous for them" – and more intrusions of the inexplicable would have buttressed the story's tension.

The best historical fiction shows the past in close-up, letting us understand how, in spite of its foreignness, many of its issues are still with us. Donoghue's ideas about the non-traditional family do this well; sometimes, a child is "a bird in the wrong nest." The Wonder is built on surveillance and celebrity, disordered eating and the fetishizing of the child's body, but keeps mainly to the surface, leaving the sense that it could have dug in harder here. Anna is an empty plate, a "blank page," a fascination, but her portrayal leaves us hungry for more. The tensions between adults and children form a constant undertone. We want this child, like Kafka's kids, to stare back at us and the world we've made.

One of the book's most arresting phrases is about Anna's last day of eating. First, communion is "the end of being a child." Another strong refrain comes from Psalms: "[S]trange children have faded away." Following the trail of novels such as Oliver Twist or Jane Eyre, the stop sign on childhood comes too soon, and this story's conflict fades rather quickly as well. The Wonder's ending fits a Victorian tale, but it could have used a little more salt.

Alix Hawley is the author of All True Not a Lie in It, which won the First Novel Award.

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