The Wonders (2015) by Paddy O’Reilly
*this review contains spoilers!*
This is a wonderful book, and I’m not even saying that as a pun: it really is wonderful. O’Reilly’s work explores the notion of being a ‘freak’, a celebrity and a human being. Her characters are vivid, flawed and relatable, their hopes, relationships and lives fragile and fascinating.
After being implanted with an illegal and experimental mechanical heart, Leon is approached by Rhona, a marketing and performance expert, to become part of a trio that will travel the world performing shows. The other two performers are Kathryn, a woman cured of Huntington’s disease and left with the curious side-effect of being covered in black sheep’s wool, and Christos, a performance artist with metal wings implanted in his back. The three become The Wonders, achieving international super-stardom for their ‘uberhuman’ qualities. But fame of this magnitude comes with a price, and a tragic event overshadows their celebrity and fortune; the line between fame and privacy, humanity and inhumanity are soon crossed by both celebrity and fanatic.
This work is overshadowed from the beginning by a sense of foreboding; small clues in Leon’s narration and reflection pre-empt a tragedy brought on by their fame and their difference from others. It is also pre-empted by the presence of circus animals rescued by Rhona who need constant protection from the outside world. Parallels are drawn between the circus animals, who have often suffered cruelly at the hands of trainers and audience members alike, and The Wonders, who are often described as ‘inhuman’ or ‘animals’ by those opposed to them. However, the pre-empted tragic event comes very late in the narrative and is not exactly as expected. In fact there are several events that do not transpire as expected, lending the work a sense of being unfinished, as though it needs another layer to achieve wholeness. The plot binds together, the characters are suitably flawed and whole, so there is no specific complaint to be made, just a sense that something hasn’t quite happened; perhaps an opportunity was missed.
O’Reilly’s writing style is plain and unembellished, her characters and plot pleasingly offbeat and human, and the whole work appropriately satirical. The Wonders is a very enjoyable read, particularly for those interested in the concepts of fame, celebrity, humanity and inhumanity.