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Year of Wonders: A Novel Of The Plague Paperback – 4 Feb 2002
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Geraldine Brooks's Year of Wonders describes the 17th-century plague that is carried from London to a small Derbyshire village by an itinerant tailor. As villagers begin, one by one, to die, the rest face a choice. Do they flee their village in the hope of outrunning the plague or do they stay? The lord of the manor and his family pack and leave. The rector, Michael Mompellion, argues forcefully that the villagers should stay put, isolate themselves from neighbouring towns and villages and prevent the contagion from spreading. His oratory wins the day and the village turns in on itself. Cocooned from the outside world and ravaged by the disease, its inhabitants struggle to retain their humanity in the face of the disaster. The narrator, a young widow called Anna Frith, is one of the few who succeeds. Together with Mompellion and his wife Elinor, she tends the dying and battles to prevent her fellow villagers from descending into drink, violence and superstition. All is complicated by the intense, unacknowledgeable feelings she develops for both the rector and his wife. Year of Wonderssometimes seems anachronistic as historical fiction. Anna and Mompellion can occasionally appear to be modern sensibilities unaccountably transferred to 17th-century Derbyshire. However there is no mistaking the power of Brooks's imagination or the skill with which she constructs her story of ordinary people struggling to cope with extraordinary circumstances.--Nick Rennison
‘One of the best novels I’ve ever clapped eyes on’ Jenni Murray, Woman’s Hour
‘Geraldine Brooks’s impressive novel goes well beyond chronicling the devastation of a plague-ridden village. It leaves us with the memory of vivid characters struggling in timeless human ways with the hardships confronting them – and the memory, too, of an elegant and engaging story.’ Arthur Golden, author of ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’
‘Geraldine Brooks's ‘Year of Wonders’ is a wonder indeed. The novel gives the reader a remarkable glimpse into a 17th century horror, but does so with both compassion and exuberance. Read it for the inventiveness of the language alone – a genuine treat.’ Anita Shreve, author of ‘The Pilot’s Wife’ and ‘The Last TIme They Met’
'More than a mountain of corpses, more than a sensual evocation of the Sapphic bond between two women, more than a pulse-quickening tale, ‘Year of Wonders’ is a staggering fictional debut.' Guardian
‘’Year of Wonders’ carries absolute conviction as an evocation of place and mood. It has a vivid imaginative truth, and is beautifully written.’ Hilary MantelSee all Product description
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My main problem with the novel was Anna herself. She’s quite literally everywhere, from witnessing the first death, tending to virtually every single one of the sick and dying – including her own children – acting as an impromptu midwife and the most unbelievable role of all, working down a mine! She’s the 17th century equivalent of Wonder Woman and it just doesn’t ring true. Someone in her position – uneducated and from a poor family – would not have been able to do half the things she does without an education, money or social standing to support her, even if she is thought of as inquisitive and ‘unusually intelligent’. Yet despite all of this we’re meant to believe that she learns to read in English AND Latin, picks up the rudimentary elements of midwifery and is able to logically question the progression of the plague from a scientific (for the times) viewpoint. Nope sorry, it just doesn’t fly with this reader.
Then there’s Michael Mompellion – presumably Brooks’ fictionalised version of the real-life William Mompesson – who’s written as nothing more than the characteristic troubled religious man, harbouring a dark secret. The problem is, the real Mompesson was nothing like his fictional character and it’s an insult to his memory for Brooks to portray him in this way. Were it not for Mompesson’s forward-thinking proposition and the devotion of his parishioners, the village of Eyam and many of the surrounding villages would certainly have been decimated by the plague. But Brooks has simplified this character to such a degree that there are no grey areas. He swings from good to bad, zealot to disbeliever, with no layers in-between, making for a wholly unlikeable character who, if he were actually based on the real Mompesson, would have struggled to find anyone devoted enough to listen to him, never mind following his instruction when it came to the quarantine.
I understand it’s fiction and as such, writers can afford to stretch the truth a little even when writing a fiction novel based on fact. But to completely change a person’s character to suit your story, says a lot to me about how invested the author was in portraying this genuinely interesting historical event and the people involved. And in the case of Brooks’ ‘Year of Wonders’ it would appear she wasn’t interested in the slightest, bypassing the facts in favour of her increasingly ridiculous storylines.
Essentially what this turns into is a ludicrous historical romance novel, with the occasional bodice-ripping moment sprinkled in, presumably to help spice things up a bit as there’s certainly no real drama or suspense found elsewhere in the novel. There’s no sense of the desperation the villagers must have felt when faced with the reality of the quarantine and as for the poor people who contract the plague and subsequently die, Brooks reels them off like the credits at the end of a bad film. We never get close enough to them or their stories because it’s ostensibly all about Anna and as a result, it’s difficult to care about any of them or share in their loved ones’ grief when another person passes away. In reality these people’s lives were a living hell, with one resident – Elizabeth Hancock – burying her six children and her husband in the span of eight days, just one of the many heart-breaking examples.
I didn’t reach the end – it all got far too unbelievable and frustrating for me – but reading other reviews online, I understand that the ending is farcical to say the least which doesn’t surprise me given the first 3/4 of the novel. Whilst I’ve no doubt that Brooks is a successful writer – she won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel ‘March’ so she must be doing something right – ‘Year of Wonders’ is so full of absurd ideas and downright unbelievable story arcs, it’s almost possible to convince yourself it’s been written by someone else who just happens to have the same name. Mind you, I’ve not read any of Brooks’ other novels, so perhaps they are all like this…?
It is a fascinating tale following Anna Frith, a young woman endeavouring to survive a devastating outbreak of plague in her small village. This is a period of history I am not very familiar with but Geraldine Brooks' detailed research is incredibly enlightening as evidenced in the excellent descriptions of the 17th century methods used to try and curb the outbreak as well as nurse those afflicted.
I really liked the main protagonist Anna. She is a born survivor; both compassionate and resourceful. It was a pleasure to see her character grow in stature as she becomes indispensable to her community.
I was all set to give this 5* but unfortunately I was rather disappointed by the ending. It is difficult to explain without spoiling it but for me it was not in keeping with the rest of the novel and was wrapped up a little too quickly. However I would definitely still recommend it to anyone but especially fans of historical fiction!