Monday, 20 April 2009

Year of Wonders-A novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks

I've been putting off reading A Year of Wonders for one major reason. I was born and grew up in Derbyshire twelve miles from Eyam, where this novel is set. I remember being taken to visit this place as a child and the story of the village disturbed me and gave me nightmares! Irrational to think it might still affect me in that way, but I got the shivers every time I picked this book up!

Geraldine Brooks took the basic factual account of Eyam, the village in Derbyshire that isolated itself when the Plague struck so that the contagion could not spread, and created a fantastic fictional account of how this decision might have affected the villagers. The narrator of the story is eighteen year old Anna Frith, the widowed mother of two small children. The story starts when she takes in a lodger from London, who brought the plague with him in some cloth that he had sent up for his work as a tailor. He is the first person to die, and at first the villagers do not recognise the signs of plague. It takes a few more deaths before it becomes clear.

It's the vicar, Micheal Mompellion, who decides and preaches the necessity to seal the village off from the outside world. This at first is received with understandable trepidation from his congregation but the vicar manages to convince everyone to stay, apart from the wealthiest family, The Bradford's,who have scarpered from the church to pack before he's even finished preaching.

As the novel progresses, the majority of the village population die, but we see all this through the eyes of Anna, herself bereaved of both of her children. Anna is the voice of reason throughout the story. It is Anna who comes across the mob of villagers attacking the local 'medical' women, accusing them of witchcraft because they use plants, herbs and roots to ease peoples sufferings. And it is Anna, and Elinor Mompellion who take on the mantle of these women once they are dead, in an attempt to find a way out of their suffering before they are all dead.

There is so much about this novel I could talk about. The descriptions of the Derbyshire countryside are fantastic. Brilliant and opulent early on before the plague strikes, getting harsher as the novel continues. The landscape seems to respond to the trials of the village. Then there's the realistic, if sometimes brutal descriptions of village life. Anna's memories of her mother's death in childbirth is horrendous, and even the more successful childbirth descriptions are pretty unpleasant.

There are also questions asked about religion itself. Micheal Mompellion is the vicar, and although seemingly a very religious, self effacing man, has a very dark side, which we witness in flashes. He also has a crisis of faith, questioning God, and his plan, although never revealing his doubts to his flock. This did make me question slightly, as i would wonder how fair it is to preach something to a congregation but not believe it. It is also a bit of a shock when his darker side is fully revealed in relation to his relationship with his wife, which is not revealed until the end of the novel.

This crisis of faith is not restricted to the clergy. The villagers also start to disbelieve in God and his power to redeem them and turn to witchcraft and superstition to try and cure their stricken relatives and prevent being struck by the plague themselves. This runs throughout the book and it is Anna that guides us through this and enables us to see it from both sides. I did sometimes think that Anna was a bit ahead of her times in the way she thought, but not enough to detract from this novel at all.

And as to whether it disturbed me as much as when I first heard this story, well the answer would have to be no. It is distressing in places, but more for some of the horrific descriptions of seventeenth century life than anything else. I'm glad I read it because it was a fantastic story, the language is beautiful, haunting and ominous and it did actually set some of those long buried nightmares to rest. I'd like to finish with a quote from the story that sums up exactly how it feels to read this book.

"I drew a ragged breath at this and his my face in my hands. I could not bear to imagine such suffering but I could not prevent my mind from conjuring such terrible images of it"


Molly said...

I can honestly say that I would never have given this book a second glance --- but then I read your review and I have decided that I definitely must read this book! EXCELLENT!!

Savidge Reads said...

I think this is a wonderful wonderful book. I am now shocked that we were both born and brought up in Derbyshire only a few miles away from Eyam... spooky!

farmlanebooks said...

I've visited Eyam, and did't realise this book was set there.

This book is on my TBR pile - I need to squeeze it in somewhere soon!

Anna said...

I've had my eye on this one for a while, and your review makes me want to snag a copy right this very instant!

Diary of an Eccentric