Sunday, March 17, 2013

Review: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Title: Year of Wonders
Author: Geraldine Brooks
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Penguin
Published: 2001
Pages: 336

Rating: 7 out of 10

Year of Wonders is the story of a small village in 1666 England that is quarantined after the feared Bubonic Plague flares up there. The young, recently widowed Anna Frith struggles to make her way through terrifying times as she sees her neighbors change, fall to the disease, and turn against each other.

This book was elegantly written, and I was so gripped by the first chapter. I felt that I was really there in Anna's apple orchard. Geraldine Brooks is certainly a very talented writer, with vivid descriptions and strong characters.

Michael and Elinor Mompellion were the strongest of the characters. Michael is the town rector, a man of god, and on the surface seems to be the hero of the story. He encourages the villagers, doing his best to lift their spirits, he urges them to do what is right by quarantining the village, and he spends his days tending the sick and comforting those who have lost loved ones. However, through out the story, we see tiny glimpses of another man - one who is angry, bitter, stubborn, and self righteous.

His wife, Elinor Mompellion, was the blameless, beautiful woman who helped anywhere she could, always doing good. She was the angel of the story. Anna looks up to her, and their relationship is somewhere between sisterly and motherly. Elinor later reveals her sad background to Anna, but it isn't until the end that we really discover the extent of her pain. I don't want to give out any spoilers in this review, but after the book was finished, I came up with more questions about Elinor, and found myself wishing that Brooks would write a companion book telling her story.

Anna, our main character and narrator, was a good character, though not as well written as her friends. I think that her story gets lost a bit in the story she is telling, though I did like her. She is insightful, wise, and strong. I was especially struck by a few paragraphs in the book where she wonders if the Plague is a natural thing, instead of a divine thing of God. She reasons that if the disease is a thing of Nature, there must be a natural way to stop it. Though this sounds completely logical and obvious, there were few, if any, individuals with this idea in 1600's England, and the book reflects this.

I loved how the town took on a life of its own. It was made up of scenery that Brooks so eloquently described and the people themselves. Men and women who were not major or even minor characters played important roles in this book, because there are many instances where a mob, or a group, of villagers lash out in rage toward other townspeople. It reminded me of the Salem Witch Trials, and there is even a scene where the locals accuse a woman of witchcraft for trying to guard against the Plague. In these terrible scenes, I felt Brooks' writing potential the most as they were powerfully brought to life.

The downside to this book was that not a whole lot actually happens. I felt that the Plague should have been more present in the story, more tragic. While it is certainly ingrained in every page, it never seems so severe or serious as it presumably was. Other books I have read on the topic gave me more of a sense of the hardship and loss Bubonic victims suffered. In the beginning of the book, some of those close to Anna die of the disease, but after that, she simply keeps mentioning random names of those who have passed. The names mean nothing to us, however, which greatly lessens the impact.

Another negative for me was the ending (or, the second ending). I wish very much that it had just been left out, as it took the European 17th Century world half-way around the globe to a spicy Middle Eastern setting and starts talking about rugs and things. It had absolutely nothing to do with the story. I was shaking my head in bewilderment as I read it.

The chilly foreboding in this book was beautiful in a ghostly, sorrowful sort of way. I loved the writing style and will certainly be looking for more of the author's writing.

Recommended - just skip the epilogue!