Tuesday, August 30, 2011
Review: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
Geraldine Brooks, who has also worked as a foreign correspondent for publications like The Wall Street Journal, starts all of her fiction with a kernel of historical fact. Here, the voluntary quarantining of a Derbyshire village, Eyam, in 1666 that is beset by plague. The novel, through the narrative voice of a young maid at the local rectory, explores the villagers response to this immense crisis.
The premise; what happens to a village where more people have died of plague than still remain, was always going to be ripe for good story telling potential. But Brooks really lets rip and through her amazing eye for detail and imagination brings the village to life, from the people, to the muddied streets to the sickening manifestation of the bubonic plague itself. And she weaves the whole story together in 300 pages. As a complete aside, I have recently read another novel by a former journalist, Snowdrops by AD Miller, a more different story to Year of Wonders I can't imagine, but my point is, that I really liked how Miller crafted his narrative arc too. In both cases the novels begin at almost the end, and then describes how the heck the narrator got there.
Anna Frith, the rectory maid and narrator of Years of Wonders is a beautifully balanced character. From the beginning we learn that her life was devastated in the year before the plague, when her husband was killed in a mining accident. We also quickly learn that Anna's two young children fall early victims to the plague. This is Anna's story and how she manages to hang on through the devastation and create some sort of life for herself.
A central theme to the story is exploring human responses to the unknown. In 1666, there was no science to explain the plague, so no one understood why this hideous disease had come to the village, how it was spread, or how it chose its victims. Fear, suspicion and prejudice, combined with grief and trauma make for a devastating mix in the village, as everyone is forced to confront their own death.
Anna also bears witness to the unmasking of many of the villagers. Brooks fully explores the theme of crisis revealing an individual's true, core character. And there are plenty of surprises to this end right up until the conclusion of the novel. Brooks makes her point very well, that there are so many layers to a person, and sometimes it is only when everything is taken away true nature is revealed.
In more recent times Brooks has written the much acclaimed Caleb's Crossing. Year of Wonders is the first novel I have read by her and I can't wait to read the others. Her writing is exquisite and sensitive, and she evokes a magical sense of place. If you like historical fiction then I would encourage you to give Year of Wonders a go.