Friday, June 26, 2020

The Wonder by J. D. Beresford

Half-baked tragedy of a child savant
English author J. D. Beresford’s novel The Hampdenshire Wonder was first published in 1911. For the American edition, the title was reduced to simply The Wonder. The story concerns a child of extraordinary intelligence. It is very loosely inspired by the life of Christian Heinrich Heinecken, an 18th-century German child prodigy, whom Beresford briefly mentions in the story.

The Wonder is ostensibly a science fiction novel, but it is very light on science. It delves a little into psychology, child development, and evolution, but the hypotheses it conjures are very sketchy at best. In an attempt to establish a hereditary basis for the child’s abnormal genius, the story begins with a detailed history of his parents. The Wonder’s father, Ginger Stott, is a famous cricket player. Beresford is obviously a fan of the sport because he chronicles Ginger’s cricket career in exhaustive detail, using terminology that will prove unintelligible to American readers with little knowledge of the sport. What’s worse, however, is that Beresford actually proposes a tenuous cause-and-effect relationship between the father’s cricket prowess and his son’s supreme intelligence. It is also suggested that the child’s parents were able to alter his development in the womb by merely willing certain characteristics upon him.

The Wonder himself, Victor Stott, is an interesting and tragic character. His premature intelligence has robbed him of any personality, and his physical appearance, with an abnormally large head and disturbingly penetrating gaze, gives people the creeps. He rarely speaks, because he simply doesn’t see the point of conversing with those whose minds are so far beneath his own. Nevertheless, a few adults strive to reach the boy and help him develop his intelligence. One of these is the narrator, a journalist who decides to write a book about the Wonder, that being the very book you are reading. The narrator talks way to much about himself, however, and Victor Stott is absent from much of the narrative as opposing camps of grown-ups argue about whether the boy is a savant or an abomination.

Unless you’re really an avid cricket fan, the first half of the book is a waste of time. The story of Victor Stott doesn’t really get started until half-time. From there the novel becomes considerably more interesting, and the reader really feels for the boy whose very giftedness renders him an outcast in society. The story is still very slow-moving, however, and the novel just doesn’t deliver enough time spent with the Wonder himself. Before you even really get to know the character, the book comes to an abrupt and rather pointless ending. Then Beresford feebly tires to draw profound philosophical conclusions from a story that is really too silly and half-baked to merit such pretensions of depth.

Though the premise upon which The Wonder is based is quite fascinating, Beresford barely scratches the surface of its narrative possibilities. The result is a novel about as dull and lifeless as Victor Stott’s conversational skills. The Wonder himself is a character that one will not soon forget, but he deserves a better book than this.

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