Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 13, 2014

The Wonders, by Paddy O’Reilly #BookReview

I am a big fan of Paddy O’Reilly’s writing, and so I had been waiting impatiently for The Wonders, her third novel.  I read it over the weekend between sessions at the Bendigo Writers’ Festival and I am not at all surprised that it is already racing up the bestseller lists at indie bookshops.

If you read my thoughts about Angela Meyer’s anthology The Great Unknown you may recall that Paddy had a story called ‘Reality TV’ in that collection.  Little did I realise when I noted that the story skewers the hideousness of reality TV without mercy that Paddy’s interest in celebrity was to morph into an irresistible novel!  In The Wonders she exposes the morbid curiosity that lies behind not just the freak shows of the 19th century but also those contemporary ‘human interest’ stories that feature disabled people.  This is a novel that will engage your interest and your empathy, make you laugh and perhaps cry, but it will also make you think deeply about your own behaviour.

As you will know if you read The Fine Colour of Rust (see my review)  Paddy O’Reilly is brilliant at creating memorable characters.  In The Wonders, Leon, Kathryn and Christos form the troupe managed by Rhona, an American entrepreneur, and from the beginning the author inverts expectations about who’s doing the gawking:

What a shock, then , to meet Rhona at the station in Melbourne.  She was waiting to greet him off the train, wearing cowboy boots and rhinestone jewellery.  Titian red hair.  A big white handbag studded with fake rubies.  Leon had been stewing in indignation about how he was to be displayed as a monster, gawked at by strangers, until he stepped onto the platform and found himself staring at Rhona as if she was the exhibit.  Around him the other travellers were staring too.

‘My Hyland, a pleasure to meet you, ‘ she said in her big American voice, stretching out her hand to shake.  ‘Geez. honey, they told me that Aussies always shut their lips tight to keep out the flies.’  (p. 11)

Leon becomes a celebrity because he has a mechanical heart – and it’s not neatly tucked away underneath the skin of his chest, it’s visible.  He is joined by Kathryn, whose treatment for a rare disorder has caused her to grow fine curly black wool all over her body, and by Christos – who has elected to become a curiosity.  A performance artist, he has had wings implanted into his back.   While Kathryn’s unexpected genetic mutation has had the effect of making her beautiful and sexy, and Christos has transformed himself into a creature of glorious wonder, Leon remains what he always was – an ordinary man, vaguely reminiscent of Tin Woodman in The Wizard of Oz because he too yearns for love.   Insecure and bashful, he is a tragi-comic figure, puny and plain and often at the mercy of Kathryn’s biting sarcasm.

As some of us know from personal experience, the media can be intrusive, insensitive and a pain in the proverbial.  As Deb Fitzpatrick observed her in recent novel The Break once The Powers That Be decide that a situation is in the public interest, there is no escape for the hapless people caught up in it.  In The Wonders this situation is turned on its head.  Leon, Kathryn and Christos – under the expert management of Rhona – invert this inability to escape from the media and take control.  They manipulate the timing and placement of exposure; they ration appearances; they choreograph information about themselves; and they carefully stage-manage their costumes and aspects of their physical appearance to meet the expectations of the public.  Nobody ever sees or hears the agonising struggle that Christos must endure each time his wings are reinserted; the public knows nothing about the physical limitations of Leon’s heart; Kathryn’s ogling fans do not have any idea that she cannot bear to be touched by anyone.

The trio come in for severe criticism from disabled activists who resent a glamorization of disability which excludes people whose ‘otherness’ isn’t sexy.  Yes, how does the commercialisation of  medical curiosities in this way impact on the long hard struggle for disability rights?   Leon, Kathryn and Christos become rich – very rich indeed – but what of those left behind?  In a celebrity-obsessed society, how much does image matter, and what effect does the manipulation of image have on the person behind it?  As I write the media is obsessed with the fate of the athlete Oscar Pistorius but the more thoughtful commentators are pondering on how the cult of celebrity affects personality and behaviour.

There is also the question of lifestyle.  Is it possible for any of these three to have any kind of normal life, pursued by paparazzi, shielded by security guards, and walled up inside a gated mansion that’s more like a fortress?  And if not, what responsibility does the medical experimenter bear?  In The Wonders it is quite clear that personal ambition was the impetus for Leon’s experimental surgery which was not only dangerous but also illegal.  The plot involves all kinds of people – from voyeurs to outraged fundamentalist Christians – who are trying to track the Wonders down, but it also involves Leon trying to track down the people who saved his life, only to transform it in ways he could never have anticipated.

These clever inversions of our ideas and assumptions makes The Wonders a compelling book, surreal in its depiction of media ‘attractions’, but light-hearted in its execution.  The female characters, Rhona and Kathryn, skewer the males with witty repartee; there is a menagerie of wild animals in the gardens of the mansion to liven things up; and a kidnapping satirises the forces of law and order, making explicit that the very rich don’t need to follow the same rules as the rest of us.  For along with those who adore the Wonders there are also those who hate them, and they cannot always insulate themselves from the real world.

You can hear Paddy talking about her book with Michael Cathcart at the ABC here, and Ashley Hay has written a superb review at The Australian.

Update: Catch this terrific interview with Caroline Baum:

Author: Paddy O’Reilly
Title: The Wonders
Publisher: Affirm Press, 2014
ISBN: 9781476766362)
Source: Review copy courtesy of Affirm Press.

Fishpond: The Wonders



  1. So glad to have discovered your blog. I thoroughly enjoyed the review and will now buy the book. I expect I shall enjoy that as well.

    • Hello Lynne, thanks for dropping by:) I hope you love it too!

  2. It isn’t in at the bookshop yet, so I’ve ordered it. They said they’ll get a few in. Stoneman’s independent bookshop in Castlemaine is a strong supporter of Australian literature.

    • I don’t think I’ve ever been to Stoneman’s…
      Is it on the main road in Castlemaine?

      • Yes, on the corner of Moyston and Hargreaves Streets, half a block from the Theatre Royal. Gorgeous old-fashioned bookshop and ABC Centre.

        • Does Castlemaine have an arts festival?

          • Massive State Festival every two years, although not so much writing. Largest regional festival, or something like that. 10 days of bliss!

            • I’ve had a good browse over the website, but can’t find much about books. But I’ve signed up for their newsletter and will certainly keep an eye on it, any excuse for a nice weekend in the countryside is a good idea to me:)

              • Free coffee at our place! Maybe, given Castlemaine is so full of writers, we should approach the committee about including a writing aspect. I’ll see what I can find out locally, including through Stonemans.

                • I have an idea that there was something on the website about an organising committee…

  3. I liked that short story of hers too, Lisa, but haven’t read her longer work… yet! Another clever Aussie author to add to the TBR! Cheers, John

    • Good! I like it when I add to my friends’ TBRs!

  4. Yes reality tv is the new freak show for a modern age sounds like an interesting read

    • Hi Stu, is reality TV big in the UK?

      • Well I’ve satellite tv and most channels showing reality tv shows so yes sad really cheap and grubby shows

        • It’s a shame, there were so many great BBC series that we have watched here in Australia, and nowadays we can buy them on DVD, but I can’t think of any that have been made by the BEEB recently that we have wanted to watch.

          • No we like call the midwife but not a lot else the Christmas drama things like parades end and lady vanishes recent years have been good but no less and less

            • Yes, I liked Call the Midwife, and I do like Grand Designs on and off – amazing the money some people have to spend on houses but I admire the creativity and the skilled workmanship in the designs.

  5. Well, I loved The Fine Colour of Rust so this has just gone to the top of my wish list.

    • I loved that too, I still hope that the ABC will make a telemovie or series out of it one day.

      • Now, I can just “see” that, wouldn’t it be wonderful!

        • I did get to read this Lisa, and I thought it was wonderful. I loved the uniqueness of the characters and how she wove in thoughts and ideas about people with disabilities and our treatment of people with differing abilities (and also a little about how they view themselves).

          • It’s brilliant, I reckon. I can’t wait to talk about it with her at the Stonnington Literary Festival in November.

            • I loved it, too. It will be discussed on the ABC Book Club tonight.

              • Thanks, Lynne, I’ll try and remember to turn the TV on for that!

  6. Richard Zimler in The Seventh Gate shows what happened to similar characters in Hitler’s Germany where the disabled are as despised as the Jews.

  7. PS Your review makes me long to read this but it’s not available in the UK until next year, and her previous novels only for extortionate prices. A-aaah, I’ll have to be patient until I visit Australia next year….

    • I’m not sure, but you may be able to get it on Kindle?

  8. […] O’Reilly’s The Wonders.  If you haven’t already read my enthusiastic review, click here, and you can read a Sensational […]

  9. […] read must indeed be terrific to displace the omissions.  Where is Paddy O’Reilly’s The Wonders?  Where is N by John Scott, and To Name Those Lost by Rohan Wilson?  Where is just_a_girl by […]

  10. […] miss Paddy’s latest novel The Wonders, (see my review and a Sensational Snippet) and her forthcoming collection of short stories entitled Peripheral […]


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