What a morbidly fascinating story.
English nurse Elizabeth Wright has been tasked with overseeing a little Irish girl named Anne for two weeks. This imposed watched is to determine how Anna is still alive after 4 months of supposed fasting, and to learn if she somehow receiving nourishment on the sly from someone, or hiding food to eat when everyone is asleep. Mrs. Wright thinks this will be an easy hoax to disprove, but she is so incredibly wrong.
The Fasting Girls is an actual phenomenon, and a very intriguing one. There are very few answers regarding why these girls began fasting and how they were sustained, and why most of them eventually broke their fast. This book was based on that real and mysterious phenomena that crossed religious and continental divides. I didn’t expect to be as enthralled as I was, but I felt almost as desperate a need for answers as Lib Wright in the novel.
The amazing thing about Anna is her utter sincerity. She believes with all of her heart that God alone is sustaining her, and that she has no need for physical sustenance. Her faith the most important thing in the world to her, and she believes with every fiber of her being. Anna is a staunch Roman Catholic, and she spends the vast majority of her time in prayer and singing hymns of praise. Lib is flabbergasted by the sincerity of the girl she was sure was “fasting” for attention. The nurse didn’t expect the girl she assumed was pulling the wool over the eyes of so many to believe her own story so completely.
Lib is an agnostic at best, and is frustrated, confused, and honestly horrified by the religious community’s response to their local Fasting Girl. They see a beatific saint in the making, while Lib herself sees a little eleven year old girl slowly starving herself to death, and she can’t determine the reason why the girl is so dead set on fasting herself into an early grave. As answers begin coming to light, Lib has to fight the faith of the community at large in hopes of saving the life of the little girl she’s been called to watch.
There’s not much more I can say without giving away any of the plot points of the story. But I will say that there were actually some things that, when revealed, surprised me. I’m difficult to surprise, so I found that refreshing. There are also a lot of theological and philosophical questions raised throughout the novel, which I really appreciated.
My faith is incredibly important to me, and I love Jesus with all of my heart. That being said, nothing frightens me more than fervent faith when mixed with willful ignorance. There are many characters in this book within whom resides this deadly combination, and much suffering could have been avoided if the faithful would have simply been willing to sacrifice their comfort and ignorance in their search for truth. I cannot understand those who cling to their ignorance. If God is the Author and Creator of all we see and experience, it stands to reason that he would be in favor of knowledge and, well, reason. God is not the author of confusion, and He never intended for us to dwell in the dark. What is willful ignorance but a sullen refusal to journey into the light?
This is a book well worth reading. It was my first engagement with Donoghue’s work, but it certainly not be my last.