Miracle Monocle Reviews: Varley O'Connor
From Trauma to Starvation: A Review of Varley O'Conner's The Welsh Fasting Girl
By Adam Yeich
If you’ve ever heard of the Welsh fasting girl, it’s likely because you’re aware of certain obscure texts concerning nineteenth-century fasting girls or the history of the medical classification of anorexia nervosa. In her new novel, The Welsh Fasting Girl, Varley O’Connor takes the story of Sarah Jacob, one of history’s most noteworthy fasting girls, and turns this 150-year-old tale into a freshly poignant commentary on family dynamics and the treatment of women. O’Connor accomplishes this feat, at least in part, through her masterful employment of a variety of literary techniques—most notably a versatile approach to point of view. The Welsh Fasting Girl is the story of a woman seeking a deeper connection to her late husband through an investigative trip to see Sarah for herself in Wales. Once there, the novel’s protagonist learns more about herself than she ever expected—and about the lengths people will go to protect their reputations and their deepest secrets.
The Welsh Fasting Girl, from Bellevue Literary Press, is O’Connor’s fifth novel. She is also the author of Like China (William Morrow, 1991), A Company of Three (Algonquin Books, 2003), The Cure (Scribner, 2007), and The Master’s Muse (Scribner, 2012). O’Connor has worked as a television, film, and stage actor, and she currently teaches fiction and creative nonfiction at Kent State University as part of the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts consortium program. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll reveal that I studied with O’Connor as a student in that program and I credit her mentorship for the skills I’ve developed since graduating. Her latest novel offered me a chance to see her work in a fresh way. Described by critics as “beautiful and brilliant,” “richly textured and compelling,” and “a transcendent historical novel,” this dark and tragic novel is worthy of its accolades and showcases the skills of a writer described as “a splendid storyteller” with a “commanding literary skill.”
The Welsh Fasting Girl takes place predominantly in mid- to late-nineteenth century Wales, but begins in Brooklyn, New York. O’Connor is a master at the technique of weaving together various points of view to tell the story of group or family—in this case, a whole community. In a style reminiscent of her earlier novel, The Cure, O’Connor gives this narrative the same elegant level of attention to historical detail; however, this time around, the arrangement is even more innovative: not only does the point of view shift from character to character, but the writer also uses various narrative forms—from letters to a dead husband, to newspaper missives.
The novel’s primary protagonist, Christine Thomas, is a widow who lost her husband in the Civil War. When she decides to try her hand at her husband’s field of journalism, her ambitions compel her to investigate the fascinating case of Sarah, the twelve-year-old “fasting girl.” Sarah has convinced the people of her community that she survives without food or water, but Christine is suspicious of the miracle child and decides to take a look for herself. Over the course of her investigation, Christine is welcomed by the family and forms a close bond with Sarah, who seems sometimes to want to confess something to her. But when the community decides to conduct a fourteen-day watch to see if the girl really is surviving without food, tragedy strikes. She dies eight days into the watch from what is possibly the first documented case of anorexia nervosa.
Through the subsequent discussion of fault for the murder of the child and the trial of those persons deemed responsible, the lives of everyone involved are forever changed. The aftermath of the watch brings a number of truths to light—including the secret Sarah tried to divulge to Christine—that alter Christine’s path and compel her to become an advocate on Sarah’s behalf. Christine is a bold and empowered woman who takes on a leadership role both in the field of journalism and in the community; she soon marks out a place for herself in the Welsh society depicted in the novel.
The narrative flows seamlessly from one perspective to the next, as readers play witness to Christine’s letters to her missing, presumed-dead husband, to passages written in a limited third-person perspective from Christine’s point of view in the narrative present, to a first-person point-of-view telling in the past featuring the voice of Sarah’s younger sister, Margaret. As the story follows the fast and escalates to Sarah’s untimely death, O’Connor straddles the line between doubt and belief so that even readers familiar with the history of the case will wonder about the outcome. As the slow reveal of information entices readers deeper into the narrative of Sarah’s experiences, they come to see how she became a fasting girl and what led to her death of starvation. Then, just when readers think the story they have been following has reached its conclusion, O’Connor shows how far tales like this can travel. Readers are sure to be unprepared for depths of O’Connor’s narrative twists and turns before the satisfying and well-wrought finale.
Though challenging to negotiate at times, the variety of perspectives O’Connor grants readers makes for an enriching and harrowing experience that is well worth the undertaking, as the large cast creates a convincing sense of community, one that is essential to the overall arch of the plot and for reader immersion in the world of nineteenth-century Carmarthen. O’Connor has constructed a multifaceted exploration of the era that delves deeply into such topics as family loyalty and dynamics, community power structures, gender politics, and the lengths to which some people will go to protect their secrets and their reputations. The writer's treatment of the place of women in society, in particular, will strike readers as particularly resonant today.