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Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks: review

A 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.

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