Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #98: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
This is Brook’s first novel, and my first exposure to her writing, and was highly recommended by my equally-bookcrazy sister. Year of Wonders is an historical novel based on the true story of a small mining village in northern England in 1666, which gets exposed to the plague and whose inhabitants are inspired by their rector to quarantine themselves for however long it takes, as both a test of their faith and to prevent the plague from spreading further. The story is told from the viewpoint of Anna, the daughter of an abusive father, who is already a widow at the young age of 18 and who loses her two young sons to the plague early in the story. She struggles to preserve her sanity and her goodness as people start dropping like flies around her. Anna works as a maid for the passionate, driven, but moody rector and his saintly wife Elinor, who takes Anna under her tender wing and introduces her to reading, poetry, and culture.
Brooks uses this unique setting to discuss such moral issues as social inequality, gender inequality, religious fanaticism, mob dynamics, and much more. When the townspeople fall under the rector’s persuasive appeal to shut themselves off from the world, it is the local aristocratic family which heartlessly locks its household staff out and flees the town. As terror of the plague descends on the town, it is the wise old healer and her lively nonconformist niece who become the subjects of a murderous witch-hunt by a mob desperate to blame someone for their plight. As more townspeople die, some turn into the flagellants of medieval times while others exploit the fear and grief of the afflicted for their own gain. The rector slowly loses his faith, and Anna’s is repeatedly challenged.
While Brooks’ writing is very evocative, I fear she weakens her novel by imposing certain improbable modern-day precepts on her characters and plot. For example, Anna is the unlettered daughter of a brutish drunkard in a tiny 17th century village, and yet she fights for women’s rights, questions religion, and embraces science in medicine. A less than believable characterization, for this day and age and in this context. At the same time, Brooks gives us luridly-depicted scenes of murder, death, and lunacy that smack of a Gothic horror story. Worse is Brooks’ resorting to soap-opera plot points to ramp up her story: improbable sexual interludes which smack of cheap romance novels about Lord Spencer and the governess. And perhaps worst of all is how Brooks chooses to conclude her novel, which is so unlikely as to be, frankly, a little ridiculous.
These weaknesses notwithstanding, I think Year of Wonders is a worthwhile read and recommend it for the fascinating subject, excellent historical research, and haunting—if melodramatic—writing.