In the 1850s, a few years after the Great Potato Famine in Ireland, Lib Wright, a Florence Nightingale-trained nurse, arrives in a small village in the Irish Midlands. Hired by a committee of prominent residents, she is tasked with keeping watch over 11-year-old Anna O'Donnell who apparently has not eaten for four months. Along with Sister Michael, a quiet nun, Lib's task is to determine if Anna is a miracle or a fraud. Lib is skeptical from the beginning and expects to solve the mystery quickly but she discovers no secret feeding. Anna's physical condition worsens and Lib is faced with an ethical dilemma: Is her vigilance keeping Anna from eating and so possibly leading to her death?
Lib is an interesting woman who grows in the course of the novel. She considers science to be "the most magical force" (210) and has little patience for the religious beliefs and superstitious folklore of the people she encounters. She has a definite prejudice against the Irish. She thinks of Anna as "a trickster, a great liar in a country famous for them" (73). Later she summarizes her feelings for them: "What a rabble, the Irish. Shiftless, thriftless, hopeless, hapless, always brooding over past wrongs" (147). Lib doesn't want to be thought of as "the Englishwoman too high-and-mighty" (99) but that is what she is. Her attitude of superiority is shaken when she is told about the role of the English in the famine: "'Half the country wouldn't have died if the landlords hadn't kept shipping away the corn, seizing cattle, rack-renting, evicting, torching cabins . . . Or if the government in Westminster hadn't thought it the most prudent course of action to sit on their arses and let the Irish starve'" (165). Eventually, after learning she has been wrong in several of her assumptions, she admits she was "blinkered by prejudice" (191).
The author suggests that Lib's prejudice accounts for her errors in judgement, but that explanation I did not find totally convincing. Sometimes she just seems unobservant, something that is the exact opposite of what she has been trained to be: "exact and careful" (65). Her blindness to Pat's fate is an example as is her not seeing what is happening to Anna. She, a trained, professional nurse, must be told by a newspaper reporter what should have been obvious; that reporter, William Byrne, even asks Lib, "'Are you blind?'" (184).
Most of the minor characters are detestable. They seem interested in having Anna declared a saint, "'Ireland's first saint canonized since the thirteenth century'" (239), so she will be a source of income as pilgrims come to see the miracle girl. Anna's doctor, who sees himself as a great science discoverer, suggests his patient's persistent chilliness might suggest that her metabolism is "'altering to one less combustive, more of a reptilian than mammalian nature'" (195). Anna is the foil for virtually all of the residents. She is a sweet, loving, innocent child who is invariably cheerful. Just like Lib does, the reader comes to care for Anna, especially when it becomes clear that she has been the victim of men's behaviour in many ways.
There is certainly suspense throughout which will keep the reader turning pages. There are many questions to which one craves answers: Is Anna being fed by someone? Why is she choosing to fast? Should religious beliefs take precedence over the welfare of a child? What can Lib do to prevent Anna's death? The novel's atmosphere certainly adds to the suspense: the majority of the scenes are in Anna's bedroom or on the peat bogs which possess "'the eerie power of keeping things as they were at the moment of immersion . . . [including] the occasional body in a remarkable state of preservation'" (164). There is a claustrophobic feeling throughout. The religious fundamentalism is suffocating and so is the amount of control the men in the community exert.
There is a distraction, however, that mars the novel. A romance develops that has a handsome man coming to the rescue at a crucial time. He is even seen riding off into the sunset: "Lib looked back over her shoulder and saw the scene for a moment as if in a painting. Horse and riders, the trees, the fading streaks in the west" (277).
The ending, too, is problematic. It is too pat, too Hollywood. The past cannot be left behind very easily; Lib should know this from her own life, and Anna is certainly tormented by the past.
I've read several of Donoghue's novels and have enjoyed them. I also enjoyed this one - until about the last 50 pages.