Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

In 1665, a shipment of cloth from London carried a deadly plague infection to a remote village in Darbyshire. Geraldine Brooks based her novel Year of Wonders on historical records of an actual event, a small village of lead miners that volunteered to close itself to the outside world, rather than to spread the disease further.

It sounds like this would make for a grim tale, which is why I have avoided this book for years, even though friends who know my tastes strongly recommended it and I've enjoyed other books by the author. Turns out that Year of Wonders is not depressing at all, but the opposite.

Anna Frith, an eighteen-year-old mother of two, narrates the story of what happens to relationships and social order in the extreme circumstances of the time. So, we are a witness to family violence, extreme poverty, lunacy, mass hysteria, alcohol and poppy addiction, wantonness and religious fanaticism... as well as many, many deaths. The uplifting part is seeing what gives a person strength to carry on in spite of multiple tragedies. Anna's development of strong friendships, her appreciation of nature's beauty, the miracle of new life, the possibilities of love and the power of faith are some of the wonders that Anna encounters in the year of the plague.

Anna's ability to read and write is highly unusual for the time, but believably explained. Her period turns of phrase are charming: "I found a strange cock discomposing my hens." Anna's personality is modest, polite and within the bounds of social propriety, even in what she records: "She called us all manner of ill things that are not set down here."

Year of Wonders has something for every kind of reader: an eventful plot, fascinating characters, a detailed historical setting, and gorgeous language. The Penguin audiobook [10 hours] is read by the author, who has a soft, dreamy voice.

Readalikes: Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel) and Curiosity (Joan Thomas).

No comments: