Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks: review

Year of wondersA chance discovery of a real-life tale of personal sacrifice and survival made such a  lasting impression on the Wall Street Journal’s Middle East correspondent Geraldine Brooks, that it lingered in her memory for almost ten years.

While she was taking a walking holiday in the UK’s Peak District she noticed a sign for the village of Eyam bearing the beguiling descriptor  ‘the plague village’. An exhibition in a nearby parish church explained how the term derived from an episode in 1665 when bubonic plague descended on this community and in an effort to prevent the spread of the disease the villagers shut themselves off from the world. Brookes began to see parallels between the villagers’  story of self sacrifice and instances she had encountered during her time in some of the world’s hot spots  of people who under the pressure of extreme circumstances found unexpected reservoirs of bravery.  The result was her international best selling novel Year of Wonders that she wrote ten years after her visit to Eyam.

Published in 2001, this is a novel which depicts the events of that fateful year of 1665. It began with the death of a tailor. Then spread quickly to his customers and soon the villagers began to dread the signs of high fever and supperating pustules that presaged the imminent death of their neighbours; their sons and their daughters; their wives and husbands. The local landed gentry fled in fear of their lives but the rest remained, persuaded by their forceful rector Michael Mompellion that a voluntary quarantine could prevent the spread of the “plague-seeds” beyond their boundaries.

The story of this decision and its aftermath is told through the eyes of Anna Frith, a young maidservant who assists the rector in his determination to contain the disease.  She’s a spirited, resourceful  character who forms a close bond with the minister’s wife in her endeavour  to use herbs and plants to bring some comfort to the villagers who do succumb to the disease. Not that there is much solace in this village even for those who escape the pestilence. Many of them suffer in ways other than death,  losing their reason, their faith and in some cases, their humanity. But as they weaken, Anna’s resourcefulness and courage gives her the strength not just to survive but to thrive and grow.

To re-create the past, Brooks drew on records that explained contemporary beliefs about the plague,  the lives of lead miners and shepherds such as those who lived in this part of Derbyshire, clothing and patterns of speech. But in the absence of any substantial body of written material from the villagers themselves, much of what she recounts as their actual experience came from her imagination.

For Brooks, that process of imagining life in a community so far removed by time and location from her own world, involved drawing on personal experiences and finding resonances in contemporary life. Talking to students on the Plagues, Witches and War MOOC course which features Year of Wonders as a set text, Brooks argued that emotions and sensations don’t change through the centuries even if the particular circumstances differ. The intense pain of a difficult and life threatening childbirth she herself experienced would be the same endured by a woman in the same circumstances in the seventeenth century:

What we [historical fiction authors] do, we empathize, we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. This is what the nature of being a human being is, at its best, is empathy. I can presume to know her consciousness, her pain, her frustration….these things are what make us human, and they don’t change.

It may be that empathetic approach  was one reason why many of the human reactions portrayed in Year of Wonders seemed plausible even if the events described were almost beyond belief. I wouldn’t rank it as a wonderful novel (some of the dialogue is rather strained and the ending pushes the boundaries of credulity) but it was still very readable and a big step above the other set texts on the course.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on November 30, 2013, in historical fiction and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. I liked her class lecture quite a lot. I found the book so-so but nonetheless so much better than the other ones.

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  2. I loved this book, but agree the ending wasn’t perfect. I think it would have been far better if the last chapter had been left out. I didn’t need it all wrapped up nicely in that way.

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    • in her discussion with the students she spent a lot of time talking about the ending because that’s the one piece of criticism that seems to come up regularly. she said she wanted to send her character
      somewhere that’s completely different
      because she knew that Eyam didn’t actually recover from the plague and she didn’t want to leave her there but instead to let her travel ” somewhere loud, and noisy, and bright, and crowded.

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  3. Just catching up. You zeroed in on the most interesting thing she said. I agreed with it and then wondered about it. Same versus different emotions. Yes same. But then how do we account for a whole society accepting something like slavery as normal? And what are the blindspots of our own culture that other cultures will look back on and condemn us for. Perhaps environmental issues?
    I also thought she was the most interesting of the speakers, but then I have liked the few books I have read by her.

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    • There’s a limit to her theory and the parallels she draws isn’t there?. No woman today would surely go through that amount of pain without anaesthetic unless maybe she was somewhere remote that no medical aid could get to? Still at least she was articulate and you could see how she worked her ideas into the book which is more than can be said for one of the earlier authors

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  4. I’ve just started to watch her seminar videos and I’m going to be interested to see if she talks about why she has changed some of the characters and events. I know Eyam very well and I’ve been irritated by her depiction of the Minister. I know she is right when she says that there is very little about what it must have been like to live through that time and what people would have felt. But we do have evidence where he is concerned and so why change it?

    On the location, however, she is spot on. As she describes the landscape surrounding the village I could have been walking there.

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    • Her seminars have been the best so far because she at least talks about her concept of historic fiction for part of the time. I’d have to listen again to see if she talks about changing the character – she does make the rector more morally ambivalent Karen Heenan-Davies

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  5. Thank you… this in an intorduction for me.

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  6. This is interesting. I recently finished The Testament of Mary about Jesus’ mother and I’ve read a lot of reviews claiming she was (too) modern. But I felt that mothers probably have felt the same way throughout history about their children and yet, when I read the Geraldine Brooks quote, I thought ‘that can’t be right’. I’m not sure I believe that what makes us human is, that we have felt the same way about things throughout our history. I will need to ponder this a bit more.

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  7. I have loved all of her books. Have you read any of her other ones?

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  1. Pingback: Six degrees: From Year of Wonders | BookerTalk

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