A warning – this review mentions specific plot details, so look away now if you have still to read this brilliant novel (just make sure you do read my piece eventually!)
Emma Donoghue’s protagonist, Lib, is a highly competent English nurse who is out of her depth in a Catholic Irish community in the mid-Nineteenth Century, a place haunted by memories of famine, and where food and even the act of eating has become highly problematised. She has been employed to observe the every movement of Anna, a young girl who has apparently not eaten for months and yet seems to be thriving. Anna is regarded by some in her community as a miracle, but the atheistic Lib has already decided she is a charlatan, ‘a false, little baggage.’ It is a measure of Donoghue’s skill that she is able to maintain Lib’s suspicion, and highly prejudiced views of the Irish community, whilst shaping her into a sympathetic character as her reserve towards the child crumbles. The community’s need for Anna to be special is set against Lib’s sense of her own scientific insight and training at the hands of ‘Miss N’. What the community believes, or wishes to believe, becomes a darker proposition as the novel progresses, and Lib’s initial professional detachment is replaced with a deep-seated need to save the girl she now feels she is complicit in helping to starve, merely by being present as an observer.
The novel is brilliantly claustrophobic – not just because of Anna’s cell-like room – but because of the way the adults in Anna’s life choose to close their minds to difficult or challenging realities, even if it means allowing Anna to die. Somewhere along the line, this community has lost sight of the little girl at the heart of the story. It takes a journalist seeking his own story to make Lib see the reality of what she is being drawn into. Donoghue does confinement and the power of parental love well, as we’ve seen before, and it is the fight for Anna and for the truth behind her story which had me racing through this novel. I had to know how it ended – and Donoghue didn’t let me down. I’m conscious of trying to find a new superlative to cover just how good this novel is. None really suffice – I absolutely loved it.