This snapshot features Paddy O’Reilly’s impressive third novel, The Wonders (Affirm, 2014), in which a flamboyant entrepreneur turns three human curiosities into global celebrities. Leon is the recipient of a visible metal heart (after undergoing multiple failed transplants). Kathryn is covered in curly black wool (the result of gene therapy to cure Huntingdon’s disease). And Christos is a performance artist who has brackets transplanted into his shoulder blades to hold enormous metal wings (the only one of the three whose aberration is a choice). Together, they perform in an entertainment spectacular called The Wonders.
One of the reasons I found this novel deeply interesting is the questions it raises about how we as a society deal with human otherness and difference—a preoccupation of mine since writing my first novel, The Sinkings. When O’Reilly spoke at the Perth Writers Festival about being inspired by exquisite old anatomical drawings, I remembered my own research, trawling through nineteenth-century medical journals and visiting the anatomy museum at Glasgow University, with its monstrous specimens in glass jars
I’ve chosen the following passage as a brief taste of The Wonders:
Leon had come to think of the stare as admiration. Maybe Kathryn was right. A child uses the stare as a tool of curiosity and wonder. The grotesque is wonderful. The malformed is wonderful, the unexpected is wonderful and so is the beautiful. There is far less judgement in the unguarded stare of a child than the hush-ups of their adult companions.
He told Kathryn how, at a private dinner, a child who was waiting in the corridor for her waitress mother to finish work had asked him if he was a robot. That made him laugh. ‘Is your brain made of metal too?’ she asked. She was five, the age when the questions pour out of a child like milk out of a jug. ‘Do you eat nails? Why did they put it in that way? Do you have feelings?’
‘Oh yes,’ Leon answered her. ‘I have so many feelings that sometimes I think I’ll burst.’
‘Me too,’ she replied gravely. She touched his hand, and looked up at his face with serious eyes. Eyes that didn’t waver. Eyes that never flickered once to the hole in his chest.