Review

Year of Wonders

by Geraldine Brooks



The subtitle of this book is A Novel of the Plague, which set me to
wondering why epidemics are so grimly fascinating. There are plenty
of contemporary specters to haunt us, of course: AIDS, Ebola, the
threat of biological warfare (intensified by the anthrax scare and
the prospect of facing a smallpox outbreak with little or no
vaccine). Perhaps one way of dealing, psychologically, with these
more present dangers is to become absorbed in the scourges of the
past.

I think we're fascinated, too, by the contrast between 17th Century
thinking and our own. Instead of the characteristically modern
effort to find a rational explanation for disease or natural
catastrophe, in those days the irrational --- the belief that such
tragedies were divinely ordained to punish sinful humanity, or
cooked up by the devil --- held sway. It is the tension between
this theological view of the world, and particularly of the plague,
and the nascent stirrings of the science of medicine, or at least
of a rudimentary plant-based method of healing, that dominates YEAR
OF WONDERS.

At the heart of the book is an account of how a community deals
with crisis (another subject close to our modern hearts, especially
in New York City). The year is 1665-66; the place is England,
recently emerged from its Civil War and reestablished, to the
accompaniment of a fair amount of post-Puritan debauchery, as a
monarchy. The Black Death has ravaged London and now, in the person
of a journeyman tailor, finds its way to an obscure mining village
in the north. Geraldine Brooks, a journalist-turned-novelist, based
her book on a real town called Eyam, which, led by its vicar,
resolved to quarantine itself (no one in; no one out) until the
plague had done its worst --- an act of extraordinary altruism and
vision.

The tale unfolds through the eyes of an 18-year-old woman named
Anna Frith. An escape route from her abusive father had appeared
several years before in the form of marriage to a goodhearted but
uncouth miner (his lovemaking technique and intellect left
something to be desired) who gave her two sons then was killed in a
cave-in. Now she works as a housemaid in the local rectory; she's
also taken in a boarder: the tailor who becomes the town's first
plague victim. Anna comes under the lucky influence of the vicar,
Mr. Mompellion, and his wife Elinor, who teaches her to read and
treats her as an equal and friend. Also included in this group of
enlightened villagers is the local wise-woman and midwife, Mem
Gowdie, and her niece, Anys.

Those are the good guys. The characters here are fairly black and
white: Anna's father is so bad that eventually the whole town turns
against him; the others are so good it makes your teeth ache
(although the Mompellions do turn out to have some secrets that
take the sugar out of their saintliness). As death passes
inexorably from house to house, sparing almost no one, the
villagers respond variously: panic, rage, greed, meek acceptance,
murderous superstition. How Anna deals with the plague and its
victims, and triumphs with her own kind of courage, is a moving
story that Brooks tells beautifully, embedding it in the homely
details of everyday life: the food and clothes, the landscape and
passing seasons.

I do have a couple of caveats. Brooks's dialogue, perhaps out of a
journalist's desire to be historically accurate, sometimes dips
into the laughably archaic (does "You ignorant slattern" remind
anybody else of Dan Akroyd and Jane Curtin on the original
"Saturday Night Live?"). Ironically, given this effort to avoid
anachronism, YEAR OF WONDERS also suffers from what I would call a
modern agenda. Anna's religious doubts and inquiring
proto-scientific mind --- "Perhaps the Plague was neither of God
nor the Devil, but simply a thing in Nature, as the stone on which
we stub a toe" --- verge on the too-good-to-be-true. Mem and Anys
are clearly homeopaths, far more skilled than the local doctors
(who mostly apply leeches and hope for the best); among their
potions Anna even finds a "poppy tincture" that briefly tempts her
to flirt with opium addiction. And Anys, ahead of her time,
obviously believes in free love. Yes, historical fiction tends to
single out the misfits and pioneers in a particular place and time,
not its typical citizens; yet in this case Brooks goes too far in
making 17th Century women into modern ones.

Still, Anna is a splendid, redoubtable heroine. In literature, the
servant is frequently the invisible observer who proves to have
greater wisdom, imagination, and just plain goodness than her
"betters." Jane Eyre, for example (of whom there is more than an
echo in YEAR OF WONDERS), scrutinizes her employer with a kind,
sharp, yearning eye, and ultimately heals and transfigures him.
Anna comes out of this tradition; unlike Jane, however, her destiny
does not lie in the conventional state of marriage (even though the
Reverend Mompellion is a bit of a Mr. Rochester figure), but
somewhere far more exotic. Let the precise destination be a
surprise to readers who have yet to discover this book. It's quite
delicious.

Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on January 24, 2011

Year of Wonders
by Geraldine Brooks

  • Publication Date: April 30, 2002
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 308 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics)
  • ISBN-10: 0142001430
  • ISBN-13: 9780142001431