Thursday, April 15, 2010

Book Review: Geraldine Brooks, Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague

Author: Geraldine Brooks
Publisher/Year: Penguin, 2002

The Black Plague that decimated Europe during the 1600’s is the setting for Geraldine Brooks’ novel Year of Wonders. Like many recent novels that have their fictional grounding in non-fiction events and people, Brooks has fastened her story around a few letters regarding a small village in France that quarantined themselves during the Plague. Little is know about the village of Eyam but Brooks has weaved a compelling humanistic tale regarding what may have transpired within the segregated boundaries of that village.

Year of Wonders is told from the point of view of twenty-year old widow Anna Frith. Anna works as a servant to the young minister, Mr. Mompellion and his wife Elinor in order to make ends meet after her husband dies in a horrible mining accident. She also boards a newly arrived tailor, Mr. Viccars, who inadvertently introduces the Plague to the small community through a single bolt of cloth. It is this one seemingly insignificant delivery that sets off a chain of devastating events for Anna and her village.

Mr. Viccars is the first victim of the disease and he warns Anna to burn all the cloth to prevent the disease’s dispersal. Despite her best efforts, she is unable to burn it all, and the town soon begins to succumb to the deadly disease. Anna’s two small children are among the first to die, leaving her alone and inconsolably bereft.

She becomes single-minded about taking care of Mr. Mompellion and his wife, joining them in their ministrations and comfort of the ill. When the local healer is the victim of mass hysteria, Anna and Elinor begin studying her healing art of herbs and work to provide a viable antidote to the death ceaselessly surrounding them.

Despite their best efforts, nothing stops the disease or its ugly psychological effects on the villagers from spreading, as both continue to ravage the village and its families with no set path or reason. The realization that nothing is working leads to the conception of a most desperate action. Mr. Mompellion forcibly suggests, and the community follows along, to isolate themselves from the rest of the district to keep the disease from spreading to their neighbors.

After a year, the disease begins to fade and the community is faced with starting over. It is at this point that the plot becomes a little too contrived, a little too obvious. Brooks needed a strong, independent ending suitable for Anna, whom she took from a simple character to a fully realized person throughout the story. Anna deserved such an ending but what is provided rings just a tad hallow. It lacks the aura of believability that haunts all preceding plot points.

Year of Wonders
And certainly throughout the rest of the novel, Brooks creates a very believable and fantastic narrator in Anna. Anna’s emotional and psychological evolution occurs in direct relation to the evolution of this horrible event. She is a woman keenly aware of her circumstances and the brutal times in which she must exist, and tries to make the best of it for herself and her community. Her story alone is compelling and more than compensates for the periodic lapses into modern-day sensibilities that creep into Brooks’ writing.

Anna’s growth and maturity stems from her interactions with the colorful cast of secondary characters. There is her drunkard father Joss who meets a death perhaps more cruel than the Plague, and her stepmother Aphra who is more than a little unstable. There is also Anys Gowdie, the local ‘witch’ through whom Anna learns much about the nature of healing. And of course there is Mr. Mompellion and Elinor, whose mysterious relationship eventually leads to emotionally charged confrontations for all involved.

Brooks sets a very even tone to the novel that maintains the reader’s interest even through some of the more gritty plot points. The narrative flows freely, with each person and event contributing to the urgency of the moments in which they unfold. She paints a very depressingly realistic picture of a very dark time in history without trying to pack too many details into the story. As such, the story does not get bogged down in specifics, a situation that can result in an unfulfilling start-stop reading experience.

For sure, the story is solemn and depressing but there are also moments of great light and humanity that temper out the ugliness of the situation. Brooks does not hold back in her descriptions of the brutality of the Plague and the villagers towards each other. This is of course leads to some graphic death scenes and violent acts. But this is accurate of any hard time that befalls us as our instinct to survive takes over, regardless of the cost. But Brooks uses Anna and Elinor to counteract the ugliness, to provide moments of hope and compassion not only for the characters but for the reader as well.

This historical period was all dirty and illness and confusion and superstition and cruelty. Brooks has her finger on all these themes and threads them through the various events and characterizations with a keen, observant eye. She obviously did her research, as indicated by her employment throughout of the vocabulary of the time (which can slow down the reading process). The words lend an authenticity to the story that adds to the historical resonance of Brooks prose.

Few books about the Plague look at average people and how their spiritual and economic circumstances dictated their varying reactions to it. With this novel, Brooks has done an admirable job of putting faces and names to those people and giving them a vibrant voice. Year of Wonders is a worthy read for anyone interested in history, and for anyone interested in the progress of humanity in the face of great devastation.


  1. Nice review, I read March by this author a few years ago and thought it was beautifully written. I found you through the hop, the title of your blog caught my attention. Is "Let It Read" a nod to the Beatles or just a coincidence? Regardless, I'm now a follower.

  2. Hi! I'm a new follower who stopped by from the book blogger hop. Happy Friday!

  3. this is a fabulous review. i write historical fiction and my first novel (coming out next feb) is set in just this plague/fire period. i love the way you understand the novel in the context of its time. brilliant. i sm now following!

  4. @Whitney - good guess!! I had The Beatles playing the day I created the blog and for some reason that title stuck in my head.

    @Jonita - thanks for hopping by!

    @Priya - thanks for the feedback. I am not normally an historical fiction fan, but this book really resonanted with me. Congrats on publishing your first novel!!