fiction · historical fiction

Book Review: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Who doesn’t love reading about a good plague? (Just open any news site, and…) I was waiting for my next interlibrary loan holds to arrive and grabbed a book off my own shelves, one that’s been sitting there for quite a while (as have most of them, sadly!). The book happened to be Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (Penguin Books, 2002). I’d barely gotten into it before I realized the story was set in a small English town in 1666…during the time of the Bubonic plague. Yiiiiiiiiikes. I momentarily considered choosing another book- haven’t we had enough plague already???- because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to handle it, but I decided to keep going, and I’m glad I did. I’d read and enjoyed Ms. Brooks’s People of the Book a few years ago, and I’m pleased to say that my enjoyment of her writing as a whole continues. Despite its heavy subject matter during these times, Year of Wonders is a beautifully written novel.

Anna Frith is a young widow, living in a small English village with her two young boys in 1666. Cobbling together an existence from her flock of sheep and her work as a servant for one of the wealthier families in town and at the rectory, she finds joy in her sons but keeps mainly to herself. She takes in a boarder, a young male tailor, in order to supplement her meager income, and just as it seems as though the two of them might have a future together, he succumbs to a terrible illness. Soon, as more people fall ill, rumors begin swirling that people are fleeing the bigger cities, trying to outrun this deadly disease, and the town’s minister helps the townspeople come to an agreement: they’ll seal off the town and remain within its borders in order to prevent the spread of disease to the towns and villages beyond.

What follows is a tale of terror and exhaustion, one far too many of us know well after this past year, of death beyond measure, of people acting hysterically and abandoning their fellow man in his hour of need, of taking advantage of others’ fears and pain. But it’s also a story of bravery, of care and love beyond what could possibly be expected, of pushing ourselves to the point of exhaustion in order to provide what others cannot. Anna’s deep friendship with Elinor, the minister’s wife, provides moments of solace and hope; her growth throughout the novel reminds readers of what they’re capable.

This is a beautifully written book. Normally, I tend to shy away from novels that skew more toward the literary end of the spectrum, but with Year of Wonders, I can confidently call myself a fan overall of Geraldine Brooks. Her skill in immersing the reader in the year 1666, of painting such vivid pictures of the landscape and houses and possessions of the people who lived at this time is remarkable; this is an easy book to get lost in, and the amount of research necessary to so fully recreate such a world must have been staggering. What a gift Ms. Brooks possesses.

I worried that the exhaustion of the past year would have made this difficult to read, but there are enough differences in the behavior of today versus the behavior of Anna’s fellow townspeople that I needn’t have been concerned. Over half the people in Anna’s town died, and they do so at home, in full view of those who live there, compared with today, where we tuck the sick away and have laws about patient privacy (and thus we haven’t seen much of what Covid wards actually look like, which conceals a lot of the horror from Covid deniers). Regular townspeople are tasked with burying the dead; there are no crematoriums on the edge of town that people can ignore and pretend aren’t in operation day and night in order to keep up with the exploding death toll. In some ways, perhaps forcing people to confront the reality of the situation is a more effective means of dealing with a deadly epidemic (although, given the article I saw where a woman shrieked at the medical staff on the Covid floor where her husband had just died, that they were all a bunch of crisis actors and Covid wasn’t real, perhaps not…). There’s a bit of a twist at the end that I didn’t quite see coming, but that I felt fit in well with the rest of the story, and it wound up making the ending much more pleasant than I had foreseen.

I never expected a book so full of terror and death to be so beautiful, but Ms. Brooks’s writing makes it so. This is only my second Brooks book; I’m looking forward to reading the rest of her books, because I’ve enjoyed the two that I’ve read so very much. The Secret Chord is specifically on my TBR, so that’ll probably be my next of hers.

Visit Geraldine Brooks’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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