I had to finish Geraldine Brooks’ puzzling Year of Wonders in the daylight — sitting in the living room with my dad and sister, curled up with all the lights on in the room and the television humming mindlessly in the background.
It’s a great novel — a very great novel — but it freaked me out.
Year of Wonders is the story of Anna Frith, a young widow coping with the spreading horror of a Plague infection penetrating her English village in 1665-66. Loosely based on the true story of Eyam, England — the “Plague Village” — the story revolves around the actions of a few in an attempt to save the many. Led by the rector Michael Mompellion, the villagers opt to seal themselves off from the rest of the country in an attempt to isolate the disease and keep it from spreading. As many believe the illness is a blight sent from God, they attempt to become more pious and dedicated to serving the Lord — and eliminating “witchcraft” and other works of the devil among them. Unfortunately, this ultimately leads to suspicion, terror and murder as Plague spreads and begins to destroy them — bit by bit.
The novel opens after the infection has already decimated much of the village’s population and Michael Mompellion has fallen into a blackness of despair. So basically, we know things have gotten pretty horrible around Eyam. This scene culminates in Michael’s eventual tossing of a Bible to the floor, essentially admitting that all of his choices made in an effort to quell the spread of death, hatred and infection were for naught. On top of so many other losses Eyam has already suffered, he’s now lost his faith.
One of the great strengths of Year of Wonders is Brooks’ preternatural ability to “set the scene” — without hesitation, we’re dropped right into the middle of Plague Village after the disease has already taken its toll. We follow Elinor Mompellion, the rector’s wife, as she and Anna tirelessly work to try and alleviate some of the suffering as parents bury their children, children bury their parents, and other villagers bury entire families in shallow graves cut in the hillsides. As Brooks is a journalist-turned-novelist, her attention to detail is impeccable, and we’re invited on these joyless tasks with care for all of our senses. Anna frequently mentions the smell of rotting apples as being akin to the smell of rotting Plague flesh — and that’s a hard imaginary smell to clean out of your brain. It reminded me instantly of a novel I once read where a room smelled of a dead woman mixed with vanilla and burnt hair. Vanilla and burnt hair! Another terrible imaginary smell to dismiss. (You’re welcome?)
The only reason I can’t give this a glowing, stellar and incredible book review is because I’m afraid of scary things. And let me be blunt — this book is scary. It’s graphic, it’s gruesome, terrible and excruciating things befall most (if not all) of the characters, and I thought over and over again that no light could possibly exist at the end of this dark, cavernous tunnel. On more than one occasion, I was forced to throw the book down in an attempt to get some of the terrible images out of my head. People die long, terrible and graphically detailed deaths — most of which I probably won’t be able to forget about for quite a long time.
And Brooks is a marvelously talented author (she won a Pulitzer for her later novel March). You don’t feel these deaths lightly. These deaths don’t breeze in and out of the novel on a gentle wind. Oh, no . . . These deaths kick you in the stomach, tear at your hair and gnaw on your chapped lips. These are horrible deaths.
I don’t know what I was really expecting, reading a “novel of the Plague.” Brooks was recommended to me by a good friend with excellent literary taste — and she was right again. But I guess I just really didn’t expect Year of Wonders to be quite so . . . disturbing. As in, I couldn’t read it before bed because I had nightmares until morning and just started shaking uncontrollably at parts sort of disturbing. I don’t like scary things. When it seemed like the disease was finally staunched, I literally felt my chest untightening.
If you can get past all the gore — and many people probably can — I would give my absolute highest recommendation for the novel. It takes quite an unexpected turn close to the end as more and more details emerge regarding Michael and Elinor Mompellion, Anna’s “place” within a home, and the illness eventually does come to subside . . . And more than anything, it’s a great, well-told story.
4.5 out of 5!