by Geraldine Brooks
Spring 1666: when the Great Plague reaches the quiet Derbyshire village of Eyam, the villagers make an extraordinary decision. They elect to isolate themselves in a fateful quarantine. So begins the Year of Wonders, seen through eighteen-year-old Anna Frith’s eyes as she confronts the loss of her family, the disintegration of her community, and the lure of a dangerous and illicit love. Based on a true story, this novel explores love and learning, fear and fanaticism, and the struggles of seventeenth-century science and religion to interpret the world at the cusp of the modern era.
Year of Wonders is based on the true story of Eyam, a village in Derbyshire which quarantined itself in 1666 to prevent the spread of the Plague. We follow Anna Frith, a young widow and mother of two, whose tenant accidentally brings the disease to Eyam from London on a parcel of cloth. We see Eyam through Anna's eyes as the disease brings out her neighbours' true colours, and gives her the chance to mature into a woman who can stand on her own two feet.
Personally I think this book is a brilliant example of historical context put to good use. We're all familiar with the Plague, and when it arrived in Eyam it killed 80% of the village's population over the course of 14 months. Sometimes it's hard for us to imagine just how many people that is when we lump all of the victims into one big percentage, and this book does a wonderful job of reminding its reader of the human cost of the Plague.
Brooks should definitely be congratulated on her narrative style. This book is written beautifully; throughout the novel she scatters gorgeous phrases about life, death, and remembrance. About God and about what a human life is worth in the grand scheme of things. As such it's a rather slow book, but as someone who has a fondness for slow books that didn't bother me at all. That being said I wouldn't recommend this book to people who prefer fast-paced, action-packed reads, though as we draw nearer to the end of the story Anna does start to do things much more than simply talk about them. At one point she even tries her hand at mining!
Anna herself was a lovely little heroine. In some ways she reminded me of the heroine in Susan Fletcher's Corrag, for they both have this innate sweetness about them, and both of them tell stories regarding their own experience of a true event. However, for the majority of the book I was waiting for Anna to develop a personality of her own. She's heavily influenced by the people around her - her father, her stepmother, her husband, Anys Gowdie, Mr Mompellion, Elinor Mompellion - before she begins to come into her own.
While in some ways this does make it satisfying when she eventually finds her own voice, it also means that for the first half of the novel she felt more like a stock character than a character I could easily distinguish from ten others. I still have mixed feelings about her; sometimes she was a joy to read, and other times I felt as though I could have been reading about any heroine from any Historical Fiction novel.
I did love her relationship with Elinor Mompellion, though. Don't let the tag line on the above cover fool you, the real love story in this book is the friendship between these two, who take it upon themselves to treat and comfort the diseased after the deaths of the village's healers. Too often in stories women are pitted against one another as competition, so it was lovely to read such a pure and loving relationship between these two.
The main reason I gave this novel 4 stars rather than 5 is the ending, which I still have mixed feelings about. I loved the idea of it. As I said before it takes a while for Anna to come into her own, and when she finally does she does so with a bang, so I loved the independence that Brooks left her with at the end of her story.
I think what bothered me most about the ending was the change of scenery (and I won't give too much away so I don't spoil anything for anyone who wants to read it). Because this is a book based off a true event, Eyam itself is almost as much of a main character as Anna is. The descriptions of the landscape were some of my favourite parts of the novel when I was reading - quarantined as they were, Eyam became their whole world - so this sudden change at the end felt too big for the original story. In fact it almost felt like the ending to another novel.
Surprises aren't always a bad thing, of course. I loved the way Brooks twisted the character of Mr Mompellion so that he revealed himself to be someone I honestly hadn't expected, and I was so pleased the novel ended with a reminder of Anna's love for Elinor.
All in all I really enjoyed this book, and I'd recommend it to any fans of Historical Fiction and to anyone who loves books which focus on place as much as on character. My guess would be that any lover of Wuthering Heights would enjoy this novel!
Thanks for reading! J.