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Saturday, October 30, 2010

'Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague' by Geraldine BROOKS

From the BLURB:

When an infected bolt of cloth carries plague from London to an isolated mountain village, a housemaid named Anna Frith emerges as an unlikely heroine and healer. Through Anna's eyes, we follow the story of the plague year, 1666, as her fellow villagers make an extraordinary choice. Convinced by a visionary young minister, they elect to quarantine themselves within the village boundaries to arrest the spread of the disease. But as death reaches into every household, faith frays. When villagers turn from prayers and herbal cures to sorcery and murderous witch-hunting, Anna must confront the deaths of family, the disintegration of her community, and the lure of a dangerous and illicit love. As she struggles to survive, a year of plague becomes, instead, annus mirabilis, a "year of wonders." Inspired by the true story of Eyam, a village in the rugged mountain spine of England. Year of Wonders is a detailed evocation of a singular moment in history.

Geraldine Brooks debut novel, ‘Year of Wonders’ is one of my all-time favourites. The book was published in 2001, and I read it when I was about 15. The afternoon I first read this book is imprinted on my memory forever - it was during the summer school holidays; I read it on a swing chair in my backyard and cried and cried and cried for a whole afternoon. But when I finally closed the book I breathed a sigh of relief and knew I had found a ‘keeper’. And in the years since I have gone back and re-read the book for the comfort and sadness it brings. Geraldine Brooks has gone on to become a famed literary author – winning a Pulitzer for her novel ‘March’ and the Australian Literary Fiction Award in 2008 for ‘People of the Book’. But for me, ‘Year of Wonders’ will always be my favourite of hers.

‘Year of Wonders’ is a fictionalization of a true historic event. It tells the story of an English village in Derbyshire called Eyam. When the black plague swept across England in 1666 this little village did something that is still heralded to this day as a great feat of courage and sacrifice. When a travelling tailor called George Viccars unwittingly bought plague to Eyam via flea-infested cloth, the townspeople and their vicar, Reverend William Mompesson, made the decision to quarantine the village to stop the infection from spreading to the rest of Derbyshire. By the end of the plague Eyam had suffered greatly for the bravery. The plague raged in the village for 14 months and killed at least 260 villagers with only 83 villagers surviving out of a population of 350.

The novel is told from the perspective of one Eyam resident, Anna Frith. Anna is the housekeeper at the Eyam rectory, working for the Reverend William Mompesson and his wife. Anna is also a mother and widower, having lost her husband to a mining accident a few years before the plague breaks in 1666.

Geraldine Brooks created Anna as a character accidentally at the centre of it all. Anna happens to rent a room to one George Viccars, the man who accidentally brings the plague to Eyam. By working for the Reverend Mompesson, Anna is also privy to the many discussions and strategies concerning Eyam’s isolation.

Anna may be a fictional player in the grand true story of Eyam, but she is a wonderful narrator. Anna’s brilliance lies in her ordinariness; a mother hopelessly trying to protect her family and survive during the end of days. Through Anna and her relatable struggles, Geraldine Brooks asks of her readers; “what would you do?” and “how would you cope?” I loved the fact that Anna was just an ordinary woman living in extraordinary times.

The entire story of Eyam is at once heart-wrenching and inspiring. Geraldine Brooks started her life as a journalist - she was once a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. This means that Brooks pays attention to detail – she thrives on facts and weaves a fascinating fictional narrative from her historic research. The ins and outs of Eyam’s isolation are fascinating to read – everything from Reverend Mompesson’s decree that family’s bury their own dead, to the system they worked out to buy food supplies from surrounding villages (a little well was filled with vinegar for outside traders to clean coins in and food was left at the town’s entrance). But these are just the bare bones facts that Brooks researched. The really magnificent storytelling comes from her imagination – as the town downslides into paranoia and leadership struggles, as whispers of witchcraft threaten the townspeople’s sanity and Mompesson struggles to keep a hold on his parish and Anna witnesses it all. . .

First and foremost however, ‘Year of Wonders’ is a bitterly sad tale. The book opens in the aftermath of plague – when we meet Anna she is alone and struggling to cope with all that she has lost. In fact, the entire town of Eyam is devastated in the wake of plague.
If there’s one thing I can’t stand anymore, it’s the scent of a rotting apple.
Then the book back-tracks to tell the story of the town’s isolation. . . It’s an incredible literary feat that even though Brooks starts out by telling us Anna suffers greatly, every single blow and loss she bears is a blindsiding curveball. You will bawl your eyes out in this book – fair warning. Not to give anything away, but there is light at the end of the tunnel (and even a growing infatuation between Anna and the Reverend). . . but it’s a long, dark read to get there;
When I woke, the light was streaming through the window. The bed was wet, and there was a wild voice howling. Tom’s little body had leaked its life’s blood from his throat and bowels. My own gown was drenched where I’d clutched him to me. I gathered him up off the gory pallet and ran into the street. My neighbours were all standing there, their faces turned to me, full of grief and fear. Some had tears in their eyes. But the howling voice was mine.
Geraldine Brooks is a beautiful writer. Really, her prose is magnificence on the page. . . but when coupled with her unflinching ability to wring emotion and empathy out of her readers she is a literary powerhouse.

This book is sad - there’s no getting around that. But at its heart, ‘Year of Wonders’ and the story of Eyam is one of humanity and hope. This is a town that isolated and sacrificed itself for the sake of community. Eyam saved countless lives with their martyrdom, and when you read ‘Year of Wonders’ and remember that this courageous act actually happened. . . it is heartrendingly incredible. And the true story of Eyam village lives on to this day. A play called ‘The Roses of Eyam’ by Don Taylor tells the plague story. And Eyam has gained scientific notoriety - research has been done into the DNA of Eyam plague-residents who survived, particularly those like the town’s gravediggers who were repeatedly exposed to the bubonic plague but were one of the few town survivors.

I also owe Geraldine Brooks for my discovery of Diana Gabaldon. It was because I loved ‘The Year of Wonders’ so much that I went onto Amazon.com and scoured recommended reading pages. . . and one book popped up as being a historical fiction recommendation – ‘Outlander’. And we all know how that reading turned out. . .

I will always hold a special place in my heart for ‘Year of Wonders’ – a little unassuming book that I can’t even remember what compelled me to buy it. But I spent one glorious sunny afternoon crying through this book, and discovered a favourite amidst its pages.

5/5

1 comment:

  1. It sounds like an intriguing read. I will put it on my 'buy when I run across it' list

    ReplyDelete