Pub. Date: September 20, 2016
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Every part of this novel had me until it didn’t, which wasn’t until the last chapter. But I am ahead of myself. The year is 1859. The protagonist is an English nurse trained by Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War. She is a firm believer in science, not God’s will, and was taught to never let her emotions get in the way of her job. Between the choice of sitting with a dying soldier to bring him comfort until he has drawn his last breath or moving onto another patient whose life she may still be able to save, our heroine was taught to harden her heart and move on. She is living in London when she is offered an unusual two-week nursing position in Ireland. Her job is to observe an 11-year-old girl who supposedly has not eaten in months. The residents of this section in Ireland, where the child lives, are devoutly Roman Catholic. The town believes that the 11-year-old is a living saint. The nurse’s views are in sharp difference from her patient as well as her patient’s entire village. She feels the residents are believers in mysticism rather than religion.
The child is becoming a legend with pilgrims visiting from all over to meet her, which is how our nurse got her job. A committee in the little girl’s village is formed to investigate the case. The nurse’s job is to ensure that it is true the child has not been receiving any nourishment. The committee wants proof on whether this is truly a miracle or if someone is sneaking her food, so the nurse will live in the child’s room to begin the watch. Of course the all science, no-nonsense nurse does not believe in miracles and comes to Ireland positive that she will put an end to this hoax. She soon realizes the committee’s true wish is for the child to be declared a living saint to bring recognition to their small village. They want this even though it is obvious to all the child will soon die. At first the nurse thinks the child’s religious devotion is histrionic. Then she comes to feel the whole town is delusional and that her patient is a victim of child abuse. The family has already lost a son. The nurse cannot understand why the parents aren’t forcing their only remaining child to eat. During her short employment, the nurse is charmed by her 11-year-old patient’s sweetness, impressed with her intelligence, and in awe of her dedication to fast, knowing it will mean her death. The child seems to think it is her duty to die.
This story is thought provoking in so many ways. It forces the reader to think of topics such as, science vs. religion, how Ireland’s potato famine affected the country’s lack of shock to seeing starvation, the different religious beliefs in all the sects of Christianity, the connection between siblings, child abuse, and the legal vs. moral matters. The reason the book lost me is I feel the ending of the story is too neat with no loose ends; it could be tied up in a bow. The author opens too many cans of worms for such an ending. I wonder if she missed an opportunity for a slam ending. But this is just my evaluation and you may disagree. This is a gripping story that I found very hard to put down and I bet you won’t be able to either.