Based on the true story of Eyam, the "Plague Village," in the rugged mountain spine of England. In 1666, a tainted bolt of cloth from London carries bubonic infection to this isolated settlement of shepherds and lead miners. A visionary young preacher convinces the villagers to seal themselves off in a deadly quarantine to prevent the spread of disease. The story is told through the eyes of eighteen-year-old Anna Frith, the vicar's maid, as she confronts the loss of her family, the disintegration of her community, and the lure of a dangerous and illicit love. As the death toll rises and people turn from prayers and herbal cures to sorcery and murderous witch-hunting, Anna emerges as an unlikely and courageous heroine in the village's desperate fight to save itself.
Geraldine Brooks provides us with a fictional account of what life looked like from within the Plague Village and gives us insight into the human nature that accompanies tragedy.
Anna Frith is a widowed housemaid busy raising her two sons and working in the home of the town's priest and his wife, the Montpelliers. When Anna's lodger dies she suspects the plague to be the cause of his awful death and it's not long before her fears are confirmed. The spread is rampant and the fatalities of the villagers grow daily. No one is safe from the disease and every Sunday the church pews get emptier. Anna and Mrs. Montpellier team up to care for those afflicted while Mr. Montpellier works tirelessly bringing comfort to the dying.
What really fascinated me in this novel was the human factor - how the villagers dealt with the constant death of their loved ones and neighbors, the trauma of self-exile and how their faith was tried. They sought a reason why this plague had come upon them, to understand...why was God punishing them or was he testing them?
My favorite part of the novel was the friendship between Anna and Mrs. Montpellier, which has been strengthened by the tragedy is really beautiful to read and you can't help but love both of them and stand in awe of their strength.
The ending is a bit of a rollercoaster with the revealing of secrets and hidden desires realized. Brooks ties the ends up nicely and while I was a little surprised by the ending, it was a pleasant surprise and I felt a great way to say goodbye to Anna, knowing she would have the happy future she so deserved.
This poor book has been sitting on my TBR tower for ages and I could just kick myself for waiting this long to finally read it! Brooks' writing is brilliant, I can't wait to read more from her. Do yourself a favor and read this! You won't be sorry you did =)
Anna, a widowed mother of two, accepted a tailor as a border to help make ends meet. Little did she realize that she was welcoming a threat of unparalleled proportions – for the tailor had received cloth from London that carried contagions. Soon, The Plague was affecting every household, including Anna’s children, and the town agreed, under their reverand’s advice, to seal their borders.
The effects of The Plague were devastating. Not only did people lose family members, many lost their economic freedom, sanity and sense of community. Greed was rampant, and the fear of witchcraft resulted in the death of two village women. Through it all, Michael, Elinor and Anna tirelessly worked to comfort the sick, represent the underprivileged and restore hope in God.
Eventually, The Plague ended, and for me, that was when the story plummeted. Brooks did a superior job explaining the disease, developing these characters and establishing a sense of place for the reader. In short, the ending was very disappointing (I will keep this vague for those who haven’t read the book).
Despite the flawed ending, I would recommend Year of Wonders to those who enjoy historical fiction, medical history and Brooks’ writing. Certainly a good read, it could have been better with an ending that matched the eloquence of the rest of the novel.
Anna was very brave. A young widow with 2 kids, she was the housemaid to the rector and his wife. She also helped out now and again at the snooty people’s house when they had a big dinner party. Anna was the soul of goodness. Even when people treated her badly and deserved her ire, she loved them and tired to comfort them. I don’t think I could be that good and kind. Her father was a right shit, and in the end when he was nailed up to the entrance of the mine of the man he tried to cheat, she went to him. Of course she was too late and he was dead. Her stepmother blamed her even though she didn’t go to the old man herself either. After that, her stepmother went a little crazy and it wasn’t hard to figure out who was masquerading as the ghost of the “witch” and selling charms to the frightened and superstitious villagers.
The killing of the local healing women was a real tragedy and I could hardly read it I was so angry. The two people who were so vitally necessary to village life were killed very early on in the epidemic. The younger one Anys, screamed at the crowd of lynchers that their wives and daughters had joined her in her dancing frenzies with Satan. And in their blind rage and fear, the men started to turn on these women, too. Luckily, someone called the rector Michael and he set them straight. Telling them they were nothing but murderers and fools. That she screamed her invective because it was the last weapon she had against their unreasoning violence. The older healing woman they drowned (naturally if a woman floats she’s a witch) and despite the fact that she sunk and they berated themselves for killing her when she wasn’t a witch, they had no trouble going after Anys. Truly sick. I can’t even imagine the fear that these women went through. It’s so sad.
So Anna took up the role of healer. She did it slowly and reluctantly though. Anys had admonished her on occasion for not knowing the properties of very basic healing herbs – that she should know these things because she had children and they might need it. Anna and Elinor (the rector’s wife) took over the midwife duties as well. Elinor had never had a child or helped birth an animal, so Anna was the lead on these. She was wonderful and saved a couple of women after the “doctors” gave up (breech or sideways positioning that Anna could change, the “doctors” didn’t dare actually touch the woman you know!).
At the very end, the rich family that fled the village at the beginning of the story, came back and demanded the same level of service and respect that they had before half of the village was killed by the plague. This included Elinor. She didn’t die of plague, no, that she survived believe it or not. But instead, in a cruel twist of fate, she was stabbed in the neck by Anna’s stepmother when Michael had her restrained because she went totally crazy. Elinor died instantly.
After that, Michael went into a huge decline. Anna tried to help him and care for him, but he was reclusive – didn’t eat, seldom slept and never went out. After the village burned most of their possessions, the plague left them. Things got back to normal. Eventually, Anna and Michael started an affair. It was hot and mutual and I was rooting for them to find some love or happiness after their ordeals. But Michael revealed what an asshole he was.
Apparently he married his wife out of a desire to punish her. She had gotten pregnant out of wedlock when she was a young teen. Rather than have the baby, in her fear, anger and desperation, she aborted herself and almost died. She was unable to have any more children. The father of course, had nothing to do with her as soon as he tired of her after a few days. Her family was freaked out and thought she’d never marry. Michael married her to keep her humble and never let her forget her sin. He never had sex with her. Never slept with her and never touched her. She loved him blindly because she was convinced this was love and that he was shielding her from her baser desires. As soon as she died though, he was shagging Anna like there was no tomorrow.
Anna was pretty sickened by this and took off. She ran into the daughter of the snooty family who needed help with her mother who was having a very hard time giving birth. The baby was breech and the mother had lost a lot of blood. Anna help and the baby and the mother survived. When Anna was out of the room and suddenly returned, she caught the daughter trying to drown the baby in a bucket. She saved the child and freaked. The daughter said that the kid was illegitimate and would not be tolerated by her father. They worked it out so that Anna would take the baby and a bunch of money and jewelry as a bribe never to talk and to go far away and never return.
In his final good deed, Michael advised her to leave immediately. That soon the daughter and the father would change their minds and probably kill them both. He gave her his horse and she and the child left. Eventually, she got a passage to India or the Middle East and became an apprentice to a doctor there (she had to become one of his wives to do this, but it was all just for show). She could help the women of the area when they or their husbands refused to have a male doctor treat them. She raised the baby right beside her own new daughter (Michael’s). It was nice to see that she had people to love again. After her boys died of the plague, Anna was haunted and lost. She is a nurturer and needs to have someone to love like she needs to breathe. The end was a little far-fetched, but had a nice romantic aura about it and gave the book a rosy glow at the end.
First, the pluses: I loved the writing, the sense of place and community, the look at their day-to-day lives, and the dread that emerges and increases as the disease spreads. Purely by coincidence, this is the second book about the plague that I've read in the past 2 weeks, and both did a wonderful job of getting across how isolating and paranoia-inducing it would be to have your village decay around you. Well done.
I also generally liked the characters (until the end): Anna, the survivor; the Rector, who continues his mission and searches for meaning in the midst of catastrophe; Elinor, his wife, a gentle and loving helpmeet; and the rest of the townsfolk.
And then we get to the ending--what a letdown. We learn that the Rector and Elinor's relationship is the total opposite of what we've been led to believe, and he's exposed as a cruel, judgmental hypocrite. There's no hint of it until then, either--throughout the book, he advocates mercy and forgiveness, even when people do heinous things. But he punishes his wife for being human for their entire marriage, and she gratefully goes along with it?? Please. I'm not really sure why the infidelity of Mrs. Bradford is brought in at the end, either, unless it's just the setup to get Anna out of the village and away from the Rector. The whole last section just feels like the ending of a different book, is all.
In the end, I'm wondering who's worse--Mr. Bradford, who's open about his cruelty, or the Rector, who hides it.
The story is told from the point of view of Anna, a maid for the local minister and his wife. It is the minister who through the force of his personality convinces the villagers to close the town off from the rest of the world, and who struggles mightily to keep them from succumbing to superstition even as entire families of their neighbors die. Anna is a sympathetic narrator, not immune to the tragedies wrought by the infection. The oddity of a peasant-class woman knowing how to read and write is addressed in the text.
I thought I knew where this book was going, if not the details, but the ending really took me by surprise. The unusual twist requires the reader to re-examine their assumptions and casts familiar characters in an entirely new light. I don't know how realistic it is — not very, I suspect — but it surely made me think.
Another interesting aspect: Brooks' afterword details her research into a real-life village that was the inspiration for her novel. While she used many of the known facts, they are few and far between, which gave Brooks a license to invent. I suspect that if we were able to know the true story it would be fascinating in its own right, but in the absence of that, Brooks has given us a fine substitute.
Overall, I liked it a lot - the plot was mostly perfect. My little bugbear was the ending, which felt a bit contrived and I don't know if it was convinced by it. I thought I had worked out what was going to happen, but then it went off on a bit of a wild tangent. Ten pages from the end, I was sure that this was going to be a five-star book which I would physically hug when I got to the end, but then the ending happened and I was left thinking "Hmmmmmmmmmmm?!"
I loved Brooks' use of language contemporary to the period, and felt it worked really well. Her characters were very rounded figures, persuasive and constantly developing. This book is definitely worth a read.
The story is narrated by Anna, a young woman who is wonderfully written - she is compassionate, smart, funny, honest, flawed. So many of the events in this story are heartbreaking, and hearing them in her voice not only made them come alive, but also somehow made them more bearable. The author also did an excellent job of bringing the time period and setting to life - I felt immersed in Anna's world, and of the way in which the plague affected the lives of every single person in the village, sometimes in unexpected ways. The way the book is set up, we know several details about what will happen from the very beginning of the story, but not how these things come to pass. I thought the pacing of the story in this way was excellent - even knowing what would happen, there were still many surprises in store. As I got near to the end, I had some thoughts and hopes about what would happen, and was pleasantly surprised when things took a turn I had not expected. The epilogue in particular is lovely. I highly recommend this book; it's one of the best I've read in years.
As with the other Geraldine Brooks book that I've read, People of the Book, the soap-opera-y drama that Brooks adds cheapens the real historical fiction that is buried here. The pain and fear involved with an outbreak of plague is more than enough drama to make a compelling novel, but Brooks felt the need to add murder, prostitution, torture, alcoholism, infanticide, mine collapse, madness, superstition, and adultery. As you would expect from a book about the plague, most of the characters you meet die. However, very few of them actually die of the plague. Anna comments every week on how many fewer people show up for church, but from the reader's perspective that could be due just as much to murder as to the disease. There is some interesting historical fiction to be found here, but it's buried under gratuitous added drama.
There are serious imbalances of tone, and even, I felt, of purpose in the novel. I don't mind fiction 'inspired by' historical circumstances more resembling reverie than history: but I like the author's mind to have been made up about the matter before the book begins. Or for the alteration to follow some clearly intentional, conscious plot development. Beginning as deftly illuminated history, passing through badly sketched historical nightmare, and into a not-impossible but highly-unlikely denoument reads more like wish-fulfillment than fine crafting. It also undermines the book's ostensible point.
Further, if an author wishes to create a strong female character who is also becoming fashionably liberated from the mores of her own social-historical niche, it ought in all decency to be done in a manner consistent - in thought, in speech, and in behavior - with her own time, and not our own. That is, it ought to follow the pattern (known or carefully imagined) of real women who rebelled in similar circumstances. Glaringly modern phrasing and formulations of thought not only stick out startlingly from the fabric of the prose, but seem to be evidence of an insensitive ear to contemporary speech, carelessness, or worse.
Much of the actual suffering under the plague is reported almost distantly. It becomes a pretext for the story, rather than its marrow. The portrayal of the villagers feels unfinished and inadequate. Whereas the - to me - somewhat gratuitous 'history' of the Mompellions and the tragically bizarre fate of the central character's stepmother (both fictional) are given all due time. Neither one is either entirely impossible, nor credible. The emphasis on instances of 'licentiousness', lynching, drug use, suicide and abortion attempts, infidelity, drunkenness and madness seems to go a bit beyond demonstrating the universality of human nature, the relevance of the past, and possible reactions to tragedy. Nor do they always grow organically out of the characters, so much as seem to be merely allotted to them.
Brooks is an impressive wordsmith, vividly imaginative, yet lacking in equally rigorous judgement. The impression left is that a meagre stock of historical fact, research, and period reading was used for elaborately imaginative embroidery: promising, but flawed. It's a colorful and even lurid dream with insufficient underpinnings to support it credibly.
Touted as an inspiring story of people's diverse reactions to tragedy and the emerging strength of one woman in their midst, in that guise it is no better than middling. Year of Wonders affirms that suffering and horror can have a beneficial effect, not a merely destructive one. The timing may have given this message more immediacy and widespread appeal than it had pre-9/11, but it is not news. This truth, essential as it is, is portrayed without fresh insight or profundity. - Perhaps with less than I feel it deserves.
Year of Wonders is disappointing precisely because of its virtues: it could have been, and was hailed as, a much better book.
(Rated three stars for the quality balancing its faults.)
We did have a huge attendance this month, a total of 16, which can make discussion a little difficult (not to mention noisy!) but generally everyone managed to get an opinion in. The positives were many - accurate research, great setting with a real feel for time and space, plenty of believable characters, even if our heroine Annie was a little on the 'super-woman' side.
Brooks does a good job of portraying what life would have been like in a small country village during this time, and I'm sure this is one of the appealing aspects of this book. We are so far removed from that kind of life nowadays, it becomes a big pull on the imagination to set ourselves in these characters' shoes.
It was also pointed out that in many ways, our society has not really changed all that much, what with prejudices, beliefs and superstitions of old still hiding just under the surface. All these things conspire to destroy this tortured village throughout the book, and we all remembered quite clearly what things were like when AIDS first came to light in our society.
So you can see, this book brought on a thought provoking discussion that left everyone quite satisfied.
If you like history and a good well thought out yarn, try Year of Wonders or her latest title March, which won Brooks the Pulitzer Prize this year. She is also the author of Nine Parts Desire, about the hidden world of Islamic women. Could her Middle Eastern ties have influenced Year of Wonders conclusion? Whoops! I'll say no more.
The rector proclaims the plague to be a scourge sent by God, and the village voluntarily agrees to seal itself off from the rest of the world. The deaths begin to mount, and superstition and mob psychology seek vengeance on those they have decided are witches or guilty of devil worship. There is a horrifying scene, worthy of an Ashcroft creation, when the drunken townfolk decide that a local herbalist is a witch and they put her to trial by ordeal. They throw her into a deep well, bound hand and foot, only to be terrified that that might have murdered her when they watch her sink (in the classic water trial by ordeal, if the accused sank and drowned, he/she was considered innocent, i.e., accepted by God; if one floated, the accused was adjudged guilty, i.e. rejected by God, and then hanged or burned. It was the classic no-win situation for the accused.)
Anna suffers from a twentieth-century kind of existential angst, but the reader remains riveted to the story, haunted by the flawed and despairing humans trying to deal with a terrifying and inexplicable disease.
The story took a few odd turns somewhere towards the middle that I didn't care for, and this prefaced a change in the focus of the story. The deaths from the Plague continue but the story is increasingly a series of scenes that are primarily people doing bad things to each other. It seemed bent on destroying the image we the reader had built up about about a couple good characters, the Rector especially. The book more or less "jumped the shark" towards the end. My initial impression of the later part of the story was quite poor. Upon thinking on it for a while I make myself recognize that this was the author's story - not mine.
This story is how people manage. It is about how people stay strong and how they break down.
Personally, I liked the story. I think anyone who has read my previous reviews knows how I feel about accuracy in historical fiction: while I enjoy critiquing historical fiction for accuracy, I also don’t expect it. I’m realistic and perhaps overly forgiving in that I accept details must be altered or exaggerated for understanding or dramatic effect. After all, we don’t want fiction to read as a tedious textbook! Attentions have to be grabbed, held, and kept until the end.
Did this book that? Yes and no. Sometimes I felt the story dragging on and on. For the first few chapters, I read very slowly. Eventually, though, as the story moved on, I found it becoming more interesting. About the middle to nearly the end, I couldn’t put the book down.
Nearly the end.
I found myself wondering if Anna were superwoman for all she had managed to do in that time between the plague coming and finally disappearing. She was a simple peasant and servant, yet she could interpret Latin, create herbal remedies, ride a horse like a man, act as a midwife and deliver a breech baby, set a fire to mine iron even though she herself stated that she’d never even seen the inside of a mine… yes, the woman can and does do everything. Even those things well above her station as a servant. I think it was the excessive nature of her talents that started to annoy me and grate on my nerves. If not for Anna’s shows of occasional modesty that seemed sincere, she would have been a Mary Sue. After a while, I began to wonder if Anna was going to start to sparkle and cure the plague with her tears. When she began yelling at her former masters and acting well out of her station, I had to wonder if Brooks was paying any attention to realistic social boundaries of the time. Again, this might not have annoyed me had I not grown weary of Anna’s super talents. Though I say annoyed above, I mean it in a very amused way. I don’t get angry about books, at least not often. I just found myself shaking my head and snorting at certain parts of the books. And why would a rich Muslim doctor marry a widowed infidel from England?
There’s also much romance to be had. Okay, there is supposed to be romance. Up until Anna and the vicar Mompellion connected eyes over a shave towards the end of the book, there was absolutely no chemistry between them. Yet all of a sudden the two of them were copulating on the floor in a manner totally unlike an Anglican man of God and a modest, holy servant. The romance between them came completely out of nowhere. I guess I should have seen it coming when throughout the book Brooks dedicated countless lines of adjectives and praise for things like the commanding boom of the Mompellion’s voice, or his strong arms, or his dominating nature. I thought it a bit odd that he was being described in ‘romance book terms,’ yet there was absolutely no personal intimate chemistry between him and Anna.
And I am still disappointed in the turn Mompellion’s character made towards the end. It was so completely out of his character that I had trouble accepting it. Twists are one thing, but making a character into something opposite with no hints to his true nature is just out of the blue and confusing.
I know that I sound overly critical, but book readers know that a book can be flawed while still being a very great story. I liked the morbidity of the story; witnessing the breakdown of the people in this town as they battled adversity and death was fascinating. It was unreal to me to submit myself to death in the way the town people did. I had to commend the bravery of Brooks' characters, even as I condemned them for their actions in other regards. Yet, it was understandable how they behaved under certain circumstances. When faced with death, who knows what one would do or how to cope? And yes, Anna had her moments, but I found her a very likable character.
This book was like sociology and morbid psychology in action.
Year of Wonders is actually a very good book. It is a good and interesting read. You will read the book and find yourself captivated by much. I didn’t grow bored with what I read, even as I snorted in mirth. If you like historically based novels with a lot of drama and a fair mixture of people going absolutely crazy, you’ll really enjoy this one. I did.
In spite of the tragic topic of the story this is a beautiful book.
Brooks spins the story of a village besieged by The Plague, who have willingly chosen to quarantine themselves rather than risk spreading the disease to other villages and towns. Our narrator, and heroine, is Anna Firth, a housemaid who suffers terrible losses but, among the tragedy, finds her strength.
I highly recommend this book--it's an incredible read, that will absolutely make you feel and make you think.
But then there's the ending, which I hated, particularly the epilogue. And no, I don't hate it because it's not some idyllic happily ever after. The novel is subtitled "a novel of the plague" announcing it's largely tragic, just as the first person signals this is also a tale of survival. I was disappointed in the way the plot subverted the Christian faith of the people that inspired their sacrifice in the first place. I'm not a Christian myself, and I have my issues with a lot of the Christian creed--and from the beginning the novel shows the dark side of the villagers' beliefs, which leads to witch hunts and flagellation in attempts to turn away a wrathful God, but their faith also was at the core of so much that was inspiring and good. Maybe it's just knowing this is based on the true story of Eyam, so that how Anna winds up geographically and spiritually feels somehow a betrayal of what these people endured to save their neighbors. Besides, aspects of the ending are so implausible, after the realism of what went before, and just plain wtf. Were it not for the ending, I'd have rated the novel five stars. Easily.
I say almost because the end was curious. Just like having a cup of strong coffee when one is ready to settle down to sleep, there was an discordant rush of events right at the close, events which weren’t totally believable, though I accept that points were being made about the cultural divide over the practice of medicine. If the events were to be believed, they surely warranted a second book all to themselves. I would have been happy for this volume to be left on a cliffhanger, and would definitely have sought out volume 2.
Review: I can't entirely believe I waited as long as I did to read Geraldine Brooks's books. This and People of the Book are different books, with very different narrators, but Brooks manages to slip into each of their voices seamlessly and completely. In this case, I was instantly caught up in Anna's voice, and her story, and in the world of tiny mining town in the English countryside. (Although I occasionally had to remind myself that this was all happening in a post-Tudor, post-Shakespeare world. Most plague novels I've read are set much earlier - notably Connie Willis's Doomsday Book, and the rural setting didn't always provide a multitude of clues as to the time period.) I got so involved in this book that I almost started crying while reading it on the bus. And the amazing thing is that Brooks manages to draw out this emotion, despite the fact that we know how it's going to end. The book starts with a scene from near the end of the Plague year, and mentions some of the most important deaths right off the bat. We know within the first 20 pages that those that Anna loves are going to die, but it's still totally heartbreaking when they do. Also impressive is that again, even though we know how the story ends, Brooks manages to maintain a certain sense of tension and suspense throughout the story, and even pull off a surprise or two - certainly not all of the events of the story unfolded the way I expected them to, nor did the path that events took to reach where they stand when the book opens run the way I thought it would in several key cases. There are a few places where the story slows down a bit, but all in all, this book was immersive and sad and beautiful, and a general pleasure to read. 4 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: Historical fiction fans should snap this one up, if they haven't already.