Emma Donoghue follows up a series of triumphs – the bestselling psychological thriller Room (with its Academy-Award-nominated film adaptation) and the critically acclaimed Astray and Frog Music – with this quieter, more intimate gem of a novel set in 1859 Ireland. Elizabeth (Lib) Wright, a nurse trained by Florence Nightingale and hardened by the horrors of the Crimean War, arrives in a rural Ireland that has barely recovered from the Great Famine, commissioned to keep a vigil over Anna, an eleven-year-old girl who has reportedly survived without eating for four months. Skeptical and condescending at first, the nurse slowly becomes drawn into a family tragedy that threatens both Anna’s life and Lib’s own notions of faith, morality, and order.
The novel is a psychological drama wrapped in a mystery, so to hint at the nature of Anna’s extraordinary secret would be to spoil the delicately crafted sense of suspense that Donoghue achieves. Suffice it to say that, even though the solution to the riddle is somewhat predictable, this in no way detracts from the reader’s pleasure in Lib’s keen insight and increasing compassion and sympathy for the grim process she is called to witness. Although the setting for the novel hints at the huge forces bearing on Lib and Anna’s world – colonialism, patriarchy, and religious fanaticism – Donoghue keeps the focus almost claustrophobically tight, with most of the action taking place in a tiny room – the perfect arena for the battle of wits between a determined caretaker and a tiny girl who is equally, fiercely determined to abandon her flawed world. This is one of the best historical novels of the year and will doubtless appear on many award lists.