Year of Wonders- a Novel of the Plague
By Geraldine Brooks
About the Author…
Geraldine Brookes is an accomplished journalist-turned-novelist who hails from the western suburbs of Sydney, Australia. Throughout her impressive journalistic career she lent her voice to The Sydney Morning Herald and The Wall Street Journal. It was during her time as foreign correspondent at The Wall Street Journal that Brooks travelled to the small town of Eyam, Derbyshire (or the ‘Plague Town’ as it has become known), from which the contents of, ‘Year of Wonders’ was inspired.
‘Year of Wonders’ takes place in the small English mining town of Eyam, in 1665. Our narrator and heroin, 18-year old Anna Frith, is struggling with the loss of her husband, and raising their two sons alone, when she agrees to take in a boarder. George Viccars is a well-mannered, handsome and accomplished tailor. With him he brings hope and excitement back into Anna’s life. He also brings a tainted piece of fabric from London, infected with bubonic plague.
And thus the devastation begins…
After a passionate plea from the town vicar, Michael Mompellion, the residents of Eyam agree to voluntarily quarantine themselves within the borders of their “wide green prison,” ensuring the disease remained confined. What unfolds is a beautifully recounted tale of disease, hatred, ignorance and unfathomable catastrophe. The underbelly of human nature arises as the community struggle with grief and superstition, and continually turn to extreme acts such as witch hunts, grave-robbing and murder, oh my!
As the months drag on, and the body count sours, Anna’s battle to survive and bring new life into a dying town eventually turn a year of intense suffering into annus mirabilis, a ‘year of wonders.’
Despite its contents, the story is actually quite enjoyable to read. The book recounts a staggering amount of deaths, yet it’s not depressing. Deaths are dealt with swiftly and not dwelled upon (for the most part). Brooks’ time as foreign correspondent in the Middle East and Africa obviously taught her that prattling off death after death ultimately loses its effect after a while.
Unfortunately though, the book tends to be a little predictable (despite the wacky twist at the end). The sequence of events is pretty straight forward, and the characters were annoyingly two-dimensional at times. The town dwellers were cut straight down the middle. You have your heroes- Anna; the vicars wife; and Anys Gowdie; the towns ‘healer.’ And then you have your villains- the evil, rich Bradford family who fled Eyam when the plague erupted; and Josiah Bont, Anna’s father and local lunatic who buries people alive! Inevitably, and predictably, the heroes are rewarded, and villains punished accordingly. There was obviously no grey area in Eyam’s ‘wide green prison’.
Having said that though, ‘A Year of Wonders’ is still a good read. It deals with the plague in an incredibly refreshing way, a more personal way. More than just death and disease, ‘A Year of Wonders’ is about human nature, and how communities deal with crisis.