Year of Wonders
By Geraldine Brooks
Penguin Books 2001
From my shelves
Anna Frith is a young widow attempting to raise her sons in a small village. When a tailor comes looking to rent a room, she sees an opportunity to make some extra income for her family. Little does she know that this tailor, who will become so dear to her family, will also be the one to unknowingly bring a terrible plague to their village. As people begin to die in their small town, the vicar makes a bold decision and decides that they will quarantine themselves for the good of the outside world. Anna begins to work with the vicar and his wife to bring healing and hope to the people of their village and discovers that she can do more than she ever imagined.
Geraldine Brooks has written another beautiful story with Year of Wonders. As usual, she writes from true events. In 1665, the residents of the tiny village of Eyam, Derbyshire decided that they would seal their village off from the outside world in order to stop the spread of the deadly plague that had started to infect them. In Brooks' very capable hands, the story is, in turns, beautiful and heartbreaking. How and why do we continue to live when there is nothing left to live for? Anna is a compelling narrator and someone who truly evolves through her experiences. The vicar's wife takes Anna under her wing and teaches her to read. Together, the women begin to delve into the art of healing in the hopes of bringing some comfort to their dying friends and neighbors. I think this book strikes exactly the right chord between the horror of not knowing who is next, the pain of losing people who you love, and the exhaustion of trying to put one foot in front of another in this bizarre new existence.
As I read this book, I thought about our seeming obsession with books about the end of the world in modern times. We read (and worry) about zombies or a nuclear attack or the sun no longer warming our planet. We wonder what we would do in those seemingly impossible situations. But I think we sometimes forget that it has seemed like the end of the world many times before. For the people living in a city wracked by disease or war or famine, it seems like life cannot and will not go on. I think our fear of a devastating end doesn't change, but the things we are afraid of do evolve with time and technology.
My only complaint about this powerful little novel is the ending. It is a confusion that appears to be shared by many readers. Without giving it away to those of you will read this book, I will just say that Brooks radically shifts the trajectory of the story and throws in new characters and locations. The change is abrupt at best. I wish the book had ended differently, but I am still glad I read it and experienced Anna's growth and the terrifying lows and inspiring highs that people can reach in the very worst of situations.