I just finished a book called Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. It is the story of a Derbyshire village whose citizens agreed voluntarily to quarantine themselves to contain the Plague that had infiltrated it. It was recommended to me by a friend whose shares my interest in English history and historical fiction. While our tastes do not always coincide, she and I are in perfect accord about this wonderful book.
The author is Australian-born and was a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, covering Bosnia, Somalia, Gaza, and Baghdad in the 1990s. During one of her breaks between assignments, she became aware of a town in Derbyshire (called Eyam, pronounced “Eem”) which, in the years 1665-1666, had severed contact with the outside world until the Plague had passed. Brooks’s novel is based on the sketchy but compelling events of this year.
Her story unfolds gradually, its revelations paced evenly throughout the novel. The first chapter begins at the close of the year of quarantine, with the heroine/narrator describing the appearance of the village:
It is a strange prospect, our main street these days. I used to rue its dustiness in summer and muddiness in winter, the rain all rizen in the wheel ruts making glassy hazards for the unwary stepper. But now there is neither ice nor mud nor dust, for the road is grassed over, with just a cow-track down the center where the slight use of a few passing feet has worn the weeds down. For hundreds of years, the people of this village pushed Nature back from its precincts. It has taken less than a year to begin to reclaim the place. In the very middle of the street, a walnut shell lies broken, and from it, already, sprouts a sapling that wants to grow up to block our way entire. I have watched it from its first seed leaves, wondering when someone would pull it out. No one has yet done so, and now it stands already a yard high. Footprints testify that we are all walking around it. I wonder if it is indifference, or whether, like me, others are so brimful of endings that they cannot bear to wrench even a scrawny sapling from its tenuous grip on life.
There wasn’t much I didn’t like about this book. (The epilogue was a bit far-fetched, but after what the heroine went through, it’s hard to be truly surprised by anything she does afterwards.) The characters are truly engaging, her descriptions of the village and countryside beautiful, her sense of what people felt and went through together and alone felt right-on, and her vocabulary and grammar (meant to sound like that of the 1660s) seemed much more natural than many other authors’ clumsy attempts. I tried to think of other novels that were poignant and full of simultaneous evil and humanity, and thought of The Kite Runner. Yet while Year of Wonders was a grueling story with plenty of gruesome, disturbing events (decimation of a population by a highly contagious disease, lynchings, attempted murder, actual murder), I never felt beat up by the novel as I did reading The Kite Runner. The difference, I realized, was that while the evil in The Kite Runner is nearly all of man’s making (and a pretty bleak commentary on what inhumanity humanity is capable of), the evil in Year of Wonders nearly all stems from the disease and people’s reactions (emotional, religious, social) to it. The flow of events, feelings, and reactions among the community felt natural, and the novel had a wonderful heroine. I got teary in parts of the book—not something that happens often, but the heroine loses her two babies to the Plague, and that wasn’t easy to read, lying in my bed and nursing my nearly-one-year-old son.
There are many things to admire in this book: courage, hope, the bond of community, the attempt to place suffering in a context of faith. One of the many things Brooks gets right that I particularly appreciated were her descriptions of motherhood—of childbirth, nursing, and sleeping with one’s babies. One particularly apt description of motherhood is that of the heroine, nursing her younger son while watching her three-year-old boy play in a stream:
He had lately reached that age when a mother looks at her babe and finds him a babe no longer, but a child full formed. The curves have turned into long, graceful lines: the fat and folded legs stretched out into lithe limbs; the rounded belly slimmed to a straight-standing body. A face, suddenly capable of the full range of expression, has smoothed its way out of all those crinkled chins and plumped-out cheeks. I loved to look at Jamie’s new self, the smoothness of his skin, the curve of his neck, and the tilt of his golden head, always gazing curiously at some new wonder in his world.
I highly recommend this novel. I’m an incredibly slow reader, yet got through its 300 or so pages in two days. It was well worth the break from the other books I was reading, providing as it does a chunk of social history that, while not entirely based on a single specific event, deals with the life of a community which chose to face the Plague alone, to depend on no one but each other.