Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Trade, 308 pages, 2001

Rating: 10/10

Reason for Reading: Showed up on a lot of people’s best-of lists.

Synopsis: A small village is struck with the plague in 1666 England, and is convinced by the town’s minister that they must quarantine themselves to avoid spreading it to other towns. Through the eyes of Anna, a widowed mother, we watch a town struggling with faith, superstition, isolation, fear, and love. Anna finds herself thrust into the center of the action with her appalling family and a discovered gift with healing herbs that brings her to friendship with the minister’s wife, Elinor.

Why you should read this book: Just the right chord is struck in Year of Wonders: it doesn’t go overboard with historical details, and it doesn’t stoop to cheesy love scenes, the downfalls of many historical novels. Anna’s character is strong and intelligent, but keeps with the times, rather than turning into an overzealous feminist plucked from the modern age. A fascinating story that balances a lot of action with thoughtful reflection and heartbreak. Definitely at the top of the historical fiction genre.

Why you should avoid this book: If you’re the kind of person that gets really attached to characters in a novel, a book about the plague is not the way to go – Brooks, like the plague itself, doesn’t pull punches. Warnings also to the squeamish that plague is definitely not an attractive way to die.

Opening paragraph:

I used to love this season. The wood stacked by the door, the tang of its sap still speaking of forest. The hay made, all golden in the low afternoon light The rumble of the apples tumbling into the cellar bins. Smells and sights and sounds that said this year it would be all right: there’d be food and warmth for the babies by the time the snows came. I used to love to walk in the apple orchard at this time of the year, to feel the soft give underfoot when I trod on a fallen fruit. Thick, sweet scents of rotting apple and wet wood. This year, the hay stooks are few and the woodpile scant, and neither matters much to me.

Fabulous quotes:

There was a full moon that night, which was fortunate, for otherwise I’m sure I would have fallen into a ditch as I stumbled home, almost running despite my exhaustion, as the thistles tore at my ankles and the briars caught at my skirt. I could barely speak to the Martin girl as she roused herself heavily from her fireside slumber. I threw off my cloak and rushed up the stairs. A square of silvery light bathed the two little bodies. Both breathed easily. Jamie had an arm around his brother. I stretched out a hand to his forehead, terrified of what I might feel. My fingers brushed his soft skin. It was blessedly cool.
‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘Oh, thank you, God.’

Kate Talbot opened the door, her fist pressed hard into the small of her aching back. She was round-bellied with her first child, due at Shrovetide. As I had expected, the smell of rotten apples filled the house. That scent, once beloved, now was so married in my mind with sickrooms that it made me gag. But there was another smell, also, in the Talbot house: the odor of burned meat left to rot. Richard Talbot, the strongest man in our village, lay wasted and whimpering upon his bed like an infant, the flesh of his groin singed as black as a roasted beef. The place where the iron had seared was laid open to the muscle, seeping pus and green with putrefaction.

Also recommended: The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory; Fingersmith by Sarah Waters; Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.

Also by this author: March; Dames and Daughters of Colonial Days; Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women; Foreign Correspondence: A Pen Pal’s Journal from Down Under to All Over.

© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *