Year of Wonders

by Geraldine Brooks

Year of Wonders is a fictional work based on the real events of the 17th-century plague that was carried from London to a small Derbyshire village by a tainted piece of clothe.  As villagers begin, one by one, to die, the rest face a choice: do they flee the village in hope of outrunning the plague or do they stay?

I read this for The Reading Lounge’s  August bookclub.  In retrospect, my taste is rather morbid to have picked this book up in the library sale in the first place.  Who else would see “A Novel of the Plague” and say “interesting”?

Naturally, the book contains gruesome scenes of plague infection, render more gory by the author’s skill to create vivid imagery.   Some of the best scenes, however, are in the emotional landscapes of the various characters.   

The plague breaks out in the village, leaving 18 year old Anna not only a widow, but childless as well.  She works with Mr. Mompellion, the rector, and his wife Elinor, almost around the clock to tend to the sick , to comfort the dying, to help those living as sole survivor of a big family.   After the deaths of several families, I began to wonder where would the tale lead us, to carry the story on for many pages to come.  Several events transpire, showing us the best and worst of human nature.  The bacteria is not the only killer, as hatred, fear, greed and superstition kicks in.   After the death of Elinor (not a spoiler as this fact was made clear on page 2, the first part of the book written to date after the plague), events unfold that make me think, aha, I know that this is what will happen, I can smell that coming all along the way… when the crafty story takes a turn.  What would be the ending of a conventional historical novel spins off in a surprising new direction, making for an unexpected finale.   I am glad Brooks didn’t stop where most would have stopped, although the ending feels rather improbable.  An unreal conclusion to a hitherto very realistic historical tale.  

The decision for the village to remain quarantined is heroic; though on the other hand, as one of the characters points out, they really don’t an alternative to up and move.  The rich are the only one who can, and are they really evil for wanting to escape when they can?  It is ironic how the author wrote that, as they leave town, the villagers, instead of pelting them with rotten eggs and hissing, curtsy and take off their caps as signs of respect, just because they have been trained, since birth, to do so. 

Published in: on August 21, 2007 at 1:35 pm  Leave a Comment  

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