Saturday, February 14, 2015

A look at life, celebrity, and mortality

The Wonders

By Paddy O'Reilly

Publisher: Washington Square Press 

Pub. Date: February 10, 2015

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

The Wonders is about a "freak show". But then again, it isn't. While the traditional freak show offered human abnormalities of nature, the three protagonists that make up the touring attraction in Paddy O'Reilly's sensitive and thoughtful novel became what they are later in their life and through three different medical circumstances. Kathryn is cured of Huntington by a unique treatment that leaves her covered in black wool. Christos is a performance artist who has wings transplanted into his back. Leon has an artificial heart that resembles clockwork and is visible through a transparent window in his chest. Rhona Burke, an entrepreneur who has had success with various circuses and side shows bring them together for a 21th century celebration of oddities.

Paddy O'Reilly is an Australian writer who has a light touch and a subtle wisdom. Her style is easy going even though her themes in this book can be on the heavy side. She explores a number of topics including the role of the celebrity, our perceptions of what it means to be human (and humane), and our obsession with our own mortality. Most of the book is through the perspective of Leon. After multiple heart attacks and heart transplant rejections, he receives an unique artificial heart. He is naturally a quiet and somewhat isolated man who is given the chance to live out his life and to be able to risk his emotions again. Kathryn goes through life as a victim with her words and wit as her only weapon and sees her new role as performer as a way to become independent and to fulfill her wish to live alone on an island. Christos is the only one who chose his uniqueness, becomes defined by it, and strives for control over everything and others. It is Rhona who runs the show, so to speak, and she strives to balance both her no nonsense business sense with her sincere concern for the three singular individuals she brings together. She tries to prepare them for their celebrity knowing t will change them and will introduce them to other aspects of human nature that one may not want to see.

The real wonder is how this novel breezes through some heavy topics and still manages to tackles them with ease. I am reminded by her style of John Irving, especially of The World According to Garp which tackles some of the same themes. The Wonders is a bit of a wonder itself as we become involved with the three main characters as they deal with their inflictions and the notoriety it brings them. One ongoing theme is how they perceive their own humanness versus how the spectators view it with their own baggage and interpretation. How does one remain true to himself when even the most trusted person admits to the exploitation that comes with the territory?

There is lots to explore in this book but what makes it so good is that you can simply read it for the pleasure. It is both amusing and sensitive while examining important parts of the character's lives . Eventually there is danger and possibly even tragedy with hard choices for our protagonists but it is packed so well into the book that we become surprised at the turn.

The book was a surprise to me. I have not heard of the author before this and didn't know what to expect. In a lot of ways it comes across as a bit of existentialism without the heaviness and the cynicism. It is a positive existential novel which makes it a bit of a find and a bit of a contradiction. It is not a prefect novel . There are interactions between the characters that never really take off. For instance, Leon's romance with his doctor seems forced and there is never any real passion in it. Also, there is an ongoing situation with Leon and the maker of his mechanical heart that starts as a strong plot point, is dropped, then comes back at the end. I brings with it an important turn of event at the climax but it also felt a bit manipulative. Yet taken as a whole, the novel is magical and begs for a second reading for parts that you know are there but may have missed in all that literary magic going on. The Wonders is the first really great novel I have read in 2015 and it may be hard for the rest of the contenders to surpass. We will see.

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