May 03

The Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks – Guest Review by Ms D

Behold, there’s a book that covers everything: rampant disease, death, suicide, murder, torture, grief, greed, lust, sex, sorcery, devil worship, flagellation, crazed mobs, cruel parenting, and that old chestnut: religion.

In her first foray into historical fiction, Australian foreign correspondent, Geraldine Brooks (who has witnessed her share of horrific war zones), addresses an ethical dilemma. If the city you lived in was struck by some hellish plague that was spreading like wildfire what would you do? Fend for yourself or help your neighbour, in turn risking your own life?  Her story, told through the eyes of an 18 year-old widowed shepherdess and housemaid named Anna, is based on historical fact.

In 1665, villagers in the bleak lead-mining town of Eyam (in Derbyshire) were afflicted by the Bubonic Plague. Under the stern guidance of their rector they did not flee. Instead, they quarantined themselves to contain the disease, sacrificing their own lives to save communities in the surrounding countryside.

Chances are you’d read Year of Wonders cover to cover without pausing if it weren’t for all those mundane activities that keep us preoccupied for the majority of the day. That’s my point. You put this book down and actually stop to think about the first world problems we seem to stress over because they give us a warped sense of drive and purpose each day – in turn validating or existence. Yet in reality (and by comparison), Life. Is. Sweet. Well, in this country anyway.

The gruelling plague year becomes Anna’s annus mirabilis or year of wonders. Despite the loss of her young children, extended family, and two thirds of her village, her acts of humility, resourcefulness and stoicism liberate this seeming simpleton to the status of a modern-day heroine. She is smart and wise beyond her lowly station, her years, and ultimately, her time.

Simply put, the plot is gripping.

The self-imposed quarantine places the townsfolk in inhumane circumstances. In the storm of disaster, their desperate, and in some instances monstrous actions, bring about their own downfall instead of the disease itself.

Brooks writes with forensic detail. Nothing is censored; her descriptions of the plague erupting upon the surface of flesh are exquisitely horrendous, whilst a birthing scene even had me (a mother of three; all born naturally and drug-free) wincing at the text with legs tightly crossed. But equally, her depiction of the natural landscape transitioning over the four seasons (smells, tastes, textures) and the intricate, arcane manner in which she describes interior settings and village life are more vivid than any Merchant Ivory film.

The story is injected with just enough natural beauty, good deeds, and hope (even some lustfully OTT Mills and Boon-y passion) to keep you riveted to the thankfully unbitter end. I long to dissect Anna’s final outcome, but the spoiler alert siren rings loudly. For me, a little too far fetched. She has morphed into an educated, free woman who favours scientific facts over blind religious faith. Yet ironically, she chooses to live within a shrouded community (you’ll understand when you read the book).

Year of Wonders was published in 2001. Subsequent fiction written by Geraldine Brooks includes: March (winner of the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, 1966), People of the Book, and Caleb’s Crossing. You may also like: Burial Rites (Hannah Kent), Pure (Andrew Miller) and Perfume (Patrick Süskind)