Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 24, 2013

Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks

yearofwondersIt’s been a great pleasure to re-read Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks which is the Benn’s Bookstore’s book-group choice for this month.  I read this novel for the first time just before Christmas 2001, and my reading journal notes that I finished it in the middle of the night because I couldn’t put it down.  I rated it 10 then too, though these days I’d reserve a perfect score for something like Ulysses or The Tree of Man.  Still, it’s a very fine book, and one that certainly merits re-reading.

It’s based on the true story of an English village called Eyem, Derbyshire, whose inhabitants elected to isolate themselves to prevent the further spread of the plague in 1665-6. Brooks tells us in the Afterword that she stumbled upon their story by chance in a lull between her assignments as a foreign correspondent, and surely this snippet derives from that moment:

The Boundary Stone, Eyam, Derbyshire, with holes believed to be where coins were place for trade during the quarantine of the Bubonic Plague outbreak of 1665-6 (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

The Boundary Stone, Eyam, Derbyshire, with holes believed to be where coins were place for trade during the quarantine of the Bubonic Plague outbreak of 1665-6 (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

I rode for the sake of the movement, not caring where.  After a while I found myself in a wide meadow and realised that it was the field of the Boundary Stone.  The path that had been so well-trodden throughout our Plague year was already all overgrown.  The stone itself was invisible among the high grasses. … I brought Anteros to a canter, then a walk, and paced him along the edge of the spur until I found the stone, marked with its gouged holes.  I slid from his back and while he stood, patiently cropping the pasture, I knelt and pulled the grass away from around the stone.  I lay my hands on it and then my cheek.  In a score of years from now, I thought, someone like me will sit down to rest right here on this stone and her fingers will play idly in those holes, and no one will remember why they were hewn so or the great sacrifice that we made here.  (p.272)

Brooks was interested in the social effects of such a decision, and in the effects on individuals, and so – with scrupulous research – created a wonderful cast of characters to tell the story.  It’s narrated by Anna Frith, a young widow who supplements her income as a housemaid by – fatefully – taking in a lodger called George Viccars.  It is his parcel of flea-infested cloth from London that brings the Plague to the village, though nobody knows that then, of course.  Thanks to the charismatic rector Mompellion, the village agrees to quarantine itself, and the story traces its woeful decimation and the responses of different characters.  Some turn to witch-hunting while others fall prey to exploitation by the greedy, one of whom includes Anna’s father.  17th century justice is gruesome and cruel, equally primitive as their attempts to curb the spread of the disease.

I see from my Google search for a cover image that matches my 2001 edition that there are study notes for this book, so I shall confine myself to noting the themes that lie at the heart of this book: Brooks – who as a teenager was questioning faith* – explores the confrontation of the ancient faiths with 17th century Christianity; and of Noncomformists (a.k.a. Dissenters or Puritans) with the Cavalier Parliament’s Protestantism, symbolised by the restoration of the Book of Common Prayer.  Both her central character Anna and the rector come to have religious doubt, although they interpret the Plague in different ways, Mompellion preaching that it is a test of faith and endurance and Anna questioning whether a loving god would inflict such suffering on his people.  Brooks also dissects the role of women in general, and their role as healers in particular, contrasting their effectiveness as herbalists and midwives with the incompetence of male doctors who were not only held in greater esteem but were also not subject to the peril of superstitious accusations of witchcraft.

An exemplary historical novel that conveys the period well, Year of Wonders  is narrated in a voice that employs 17th century argot and a quaint style of speaking to approximate the period without compromising readability.  Mompellier hears Miss Bradford banging on his door ‘like a siege engine’ while Anna is expected to move into ‘the kitchen garth’ (passageway) to make way for her.  Anna makes ‘possets’  (a hot drink of milk curdled with wine or ale) and her child Jamie ‘mislikes’ the Puritan ways of the young Martin girl who minds him while Anna is at work.  There are ‘rakes and scrins’ (fissures and cavities) in the mines where Anna’s husband Sam lost his life, and a ‘hirsel’ (entire stock of sheep) from her flock of sheep goes missing in the ‘third sennight (week) after Jamie’s death’.  Brooks has constructed her sentences with such ingenuity that it’s possible to deduce the meaning of all these terms from context, and I only looked them up on Google just now, to check that I had guessed correctly.

I have had Caleb’s Crossing by this author on my TBR for far too long, perhaps I will get time to read it this summer…

*see her memoir Foreign Correspondence.

Author: Geraldine Brooks
Title: Year of Wonders
Publisher: Fourth Estate, (Harper Collins) 2001
ISBN: 9781841156613
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings $27.95

Availability

Fishpond: Years of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague


Responses

  1. I remember reading Year of Wonders several years ago and enjoying it tremendously. Now that I’ve read all of Brooks’ novels to date I still think it’s her best.

    • Yes, but I did love March as well. What did you think of Caleb’s Crossing?

  2. I enjoyed them all but Year of Wonders was the best for me for some reason. Caleb’s Crossing and March were both good – Caleb’s Crossing because it introduced me to some aspects of colonial life here I had no idea of and March because of the style and creativity. I think I was disappointed in People of the Book because it seemed to promise so much more – the frame story interrupted it for me and too much of the interior was fictional – (that’s my best guess re my disappointment).

    Her first book and only nonfiction, Nine Parts of Desire, was okay for a debut.

    All that said, I’d be glad to read another novel. She’s married to Tony Horwitz who’s written some pretty good nonfictions – Midnight Rising (John Brown) was the best, imo.

    • Do you have reviews of any of them that I could link to? I just did a quick search of your blog but all I came up with was Buddenbrooks (loved that book!)

      • I’m looking back and see I read March in 2006, when I was still with GeoCities so no, nothing there. Caleb’s Crossing was in 20011 but I must have been between blog sites. And I read People of the Book in 2008 so that’s the same situation.

        I found this one for Caleb’s Crossing – it’s short – mentions People of the Book.
        http://beckylindroos.wordpress.com/012011-2/2011-2/reading-2011-test/calebs-crossing/

        Bekah

        • I lost stuff when they closed down GeoCities too. They did give us plenty of notice, but it was just too much work to remove it all.
          I hope they never shut down WordPress, I would be devastated.

  3. I remember enjoying this book immensely; I could overlook some of the historical inconsistencies because it was such an engaging evocation of a small community in crisis. The ending, though… I don’t know what on earth Brooks was thinking.

    • You know, I thought the same thing about the ending the first time that I read it, judging it (according to my reading journal) as not very credible.
      But this time, knowing more than I did about the courage and initiative of women caught in desperate situations, I did find it believable that she would flee in the way that she did, landing up any old place, and making the best of it.

      • For a narrative that was so well-paced, about 40 pages before the end, it became, to paraphrase a goodreads review, a Mills and Boon romance, a horror story, an action-adventure and a travelogue, all in very quick succession. I guess that’s what threw me the most.

        • *chortle* Oh my, I don’t agree, but your opinion is exquisitely well expressed!

          • I can’t take all the credit, but thanks :)

  4. Year of Wonders is one of my favourite books of all time. I have read several of Brooks’ books with Caleb’s Crossing coming in second – it is well worth reading, Lisa. Having said that, I also enjoyed Foreign Correspondence, which is a non-fiction account of her early years as a pen pal and her experiences later in life tracking down and meeting those pen pals. I, too was disappointed by People of the Book but I have never been able to articulate why. Perhaps my expectations were too high.

    • Actually, I’m listening to Foreign Correspondence at the moment, on my way to and from work. Brooks narrates it herself, and I’m really enjoying it, though it does have its sombre moments.

      • Now you have reminded me that I listened to the audio book as well. The second I read your reply I heard Geraldine’s voice in my head! I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.

        • I have finished it yet, just up to where she meets her Arabic penfriend…
          But yes, the voice makes it even more enjoyable. (I’ve got the print version too).

  5. Now you make me feel bad. I read this last month for a MOOC on historical fiction and was really disappointed with it, found it just so-so and I hated the ending, it felt unrealistic to me. The writing itself was competent but for me it lacked a spark. And I so wanted to love it so I don’t know what went wrong.

    • Quite often when I allow myself to get hyped about a certain book I’m disappointed. I just expect too much. I don’t know how not to do it sometimes though.

      But when I read something I don’t expect much from I’m more often pleasantly surprised – That’s what happened to me with Year of Wonders. My sister recommended it and so I started to read it out of duty. That changed about 1/2 way through and I enjoyed it quite a lot – no prize winner, no best of year – but it was a good book for me.

  6. Oh Stefanie, I’m sorry – *rueful smile* I don’t want to make anyone feel about the books they read!
    You are definitely not alone, at the book group meeting there was a lot of spirited discussion about the ending, people like me willing to cut some slack because it’s historical fiction and others feeling as you did, that the ending spoiled it.
    I think Becky’s right: when we come to a book with high expectations, the feeling of letdown can be really strong, like being betrayed by a close friend.

  7. I haven’t read this one yet, but have always been meaning to. I hope it doesn’t make my sense of expectation too high, that is always so disappointing when a book lets you down like that. I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed it- twice.

    • Yes, and there’s not many books that I do re-read. I’m always so greedy for new ones!

  8. I loved this and march by her of course Eyam is only a few miles from me so have been there a few times over the years which made reading this bookj a real pleasure Lisa she captures the place so well ,all the best stu

    • Oh wow, Stu, I’d forgotten you were so close by. Have they got anything in the town to commemorate this book?

  9. […] start with Geraldine Brooks’ best-selling debut that is still her best work IMO, Year of Wonders. As I’m sure many readers know, it was the story of how a small village coped with the arrival […]


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