Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Review: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

There is nothing so enjoyable as escaping into some high quality historical fiction don't you think? Year of Wonders by Australian author Geraldine Brooks is absorbing, human, full of drama, and I loved it. 

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.


  1. I've loved all of her books I've read so far, I haven't read CC yet but it's on my list :-) I loved this one, but my favourite is People of the Book, I highly recommend it.

  2. I still haven't read anything by Geraldine Brooks yet but have had both this one and People of the Book on my list for a while. I love historical fiction and will definitely give this a try.

  3. I loved this book, right up until the ending which I found completely improbable. I did however go to an author event where she advised that the ending was based on a true story, so I have had to rethink my reaction to it!

  4. Mummazappa - I look forward to reading People of the Book, I have a couple of bookish friends who rave about it also.

    shereadsnovels - I definitely think this one ticks all the boxes, would love to know what you think of it.

    Marg - You know I did have a bit of an initial reaction to the ending too. More to the revelation about the Mompellions' relationship than Anna's subsequent flight. The flight I actually bought. The weird stuff with Monpellion I found just plain creepy. But I guess it was all so action packed by that stage that I managed to assimilate it. On reflection I think you're right, the ending does lose something. I guess, from what you say about the source of the ending, she proves the point, fact can be stranger than fiction :)

  5. I agree with Mummazappa - I really appreciated Year of Wonders, but her novel People of the Book is an absolute must read (or listen to as I recently did).

  6. I do like historical fiction and I have never read this author before, so I might give this one a try. Thanks for highlighting it, as I might well have bypassed it given it's somewhat dark subject matter.

  7. I've never read anything by this author ... yet. A wonderful review ... and I'm slowly coming around to historical fiction. It isn't my preferred genre but I've been exploring more of it and liking what I read.

  8. Nice review. This is one of those books I picked up at a library sale, put it on my to-read shelf, and then forgot about it. I'm an eclectic reader and I like to throw historical fiction into the mix once in a while.


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