Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, by Geraldine Brooks, sees Anna Frith, a young mother and housemaid in a small village, grapple with the ideas of religion, scripture and the strength of her own faith when an outbreak of the plague cripples the community in which she was born and raised. As the village and its inhabitants undergo a transformation precipitated by the fear, grief and betrayal that the plague brings as its handmaidens, Anna faces her own demons as she takes on the unexpected role of healer and the even bigger task of defining who she is in the midst of staggering losses.
I was looking for something to read that would fall into alignment with all of the other great books I have read this month, and I was reminded this was on my shelf when I saw Meg mention it on write meg!. At this point I have read two of Brooks’ other novels (March and People of the Book) and I have found this first one to be most impressive, if only because I was engaged immediately with the character of Anna, and very much enjoyed the depiction of life in England in 1665, when plague was ravaging the country. Brooks excels at grounding history in her stories in very natural and appealing ways. That this was her first fiction outing proves to be a harbinger of the great talent she owns for creating marvelously compelling historical fiction.
This is a thoughtful novel and read, and one that was impossible to race through. I found this to be one of the novels whose words and images I savored. Anna is a character who is forthright and honest in who she is and the superficial ways that she initially approaches her faith. At first she is proud enough to be one in her town of mostly illiterate farmers and miners to know how to read, but eventually her circumstances, the town’s decision regarding the plague, and further contemplation of the knowledge she holds leads her to different conclusions and further from anything she had ever before considered.
The juxtaposition between Anna’s burgeoning faith contrasted with the lost faith of her pastor and employer unfolds slowly and in satisfying ways throughout the novel, along with the exploration of superstition, witchcraft, and the ideas and application of guilt and punishment. The operations of the town and amazing unfolding events prompted endless speculation on my part about the choices made by the characters, and where my own inclinations would have led. Brooks’ complex working of the material made it easy to be simultaneously understanding of, fascinated by, and disappointed with some of the decisions and behaviors in which people were engaged.