August 17, 2008
Year of Wonders
Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks
2001 Penguin Books
Finished on 8/12/08
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)
I used to love this season. The wood stacked by the door, the tang of its sap still speaking of forest. The hay made, all golden in the low afternoon light. The rumble of the apples tumbling into the cellar bins. Smells and sights and sounds that said this year it would be all right: there'd be food and warmth for the babies by the time the snows came. I used to love to walk in the apple orchard at this time of the year, to feel the soft give underfoot when I trod on a fallen fruit. Thick, sweet scents of rotting apple and wet wood. This year, the hay stooks are few and the woodpile scant, and neither matters much to me.
They brought the apples yesterday, a cartload for the rectory cellar. Later pickings, of course: I saw brown spots on more than a few. I had words with the carter over it, but he told me we were lucky to get as good as we got, and I suppose it's true enough. There are so few people to do the picking. So few people to do anything. And those of us who are left walk around as if we're half asleep. We are all so tired.
When an infected bolt of cloth carries plague from London to an isolated village, a housemaid named Anna Frith emerges as an unlikely heroine and healer. Through Anna's eyes we follow the story of the fateful year of 1666, as she and her fellow villagers confront the spread of disease and superstition. As death reaches into every household and villagers turn from prayers to murderous witch-hunting, Anna must find the strength to confront the disintegration of her community and the lure of illicit love. As she struggles to survive and grow, a year of catastrophe becomes instead annus mirabilis, a "year of wonders."
Inspired by the true story of Eyam, a village in the rugged hill country of England, Year of Wonders is a richly detailed evocation of a singular moment in history. Written with stunning emotional intelligence and introducing "an inspiring heroine" (The Wall Street Journal), Brooks blends love and learning, loss and renewal into a spellbinding and unforgettable read.
I love historical fiction: novels with fully realized characters (particularly strong female characters), richly textured plots and historical details that educate as well as entertain. Brooks has created a strong and believable narrator, reminiscent of Donna Cross's Joan (Pope Joan), Mary Doria Russell's Agnes (Dreamers of the Day), and Alan Brennert's Rachel (Moloka'i). In this fascinating debut novel, the author quickly draws the reader into an engrossing, suspenseful and surprisingly unpredictable story. It's one of those rare works that has a remarkable sense of time and place, touching the reader with powerful emotions as if they themselves had experienced the crisis.
When I have a tallow stub, I read until it gutters. Mrs. Mompellion always allowed me to take the stubs from the rectory, and although there are very few nowadays, I do not know how I would manage without. For the hour in which I am able to lose myself in someone else's thoughts is the greatest relief I can find from the burden of my own memories.
Brooks is a consummate storyteller and as I read the final paragraphs, I found myself planning ahead, hoping to find more books to read about the plague (always a sign of a good historical novel). I found the ending quite satisfying and even thought it left room for the possibility of a sequel.
You can listen to an interview with Geraldine Brooks on NPR's All Things Considered here.