Back in my bookseller days, I would often wander the shelves as I straightened up the literature section and peek at the many paperbacks lined up under my care. It wasn’t hard to find a book that “spoke” to me, and I would often joke that I worked for free — especially since, by closing time every night, I’d have a stack of books I intended to purchase. Even with my discount, friends, that was a terrible habit to nurse!
Geraldine Brooks’ Year Of Wonders was one of those books I stumbled across at work, never having heard of it before nor read a review at all. Back in those days, “book blogs” were still a new concept — and I spent most of my time buying books simply because I thought I would like them. While I love getting recommendations from friends and spend a significant amount of time “researching” a book before I actually buy it, there was something freeing about just wandering into Borders, looking around and picking something. Not checking the reviews on LibraryThing. Not asking friends if they’ve seen it, or enjoyed it. Just . . . picking one. Taking a leap of faith.
In this case, that leap paid off. After buying Year Of Wonders, I read it quickly and absorbed every detail, shivering and panicking the entire time. Originally reviewed in 2008, it’s a novel I’ve thought of often: mostly because it was scary, moving and horrifying.
Recently we spoke about whether it was better to review books immediately after finishing them, when our thoughts are fresh, or waiting to let the book “simmer” — and then see how we felt about it. Almost two years since I first picked up Year Of Wonders, I can say unequivocally that it’s still on my mind. And worth the read.
As I wrote in September 2008, 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 try 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 — physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Though the story takes place four centuries ago, it has a distinctly dystopian feel. For the population of Eyam, sealed off from the rest of the world, it was the end of the life they’d known forever — especially as their friends, neighbors and children succumbed to the gruesome illness. When I first read Year Of Wonders, though, I’m not even sure I knew what “dystopia” meant. Now? Well, I’m all over that genre.
What I remember most about the book was its visceral details — namely, the way Brooks related the horrors of England to tangible experiences we’ve all had. The book opens on Anna describing the smell of fermenting apples, that sweet, rotten scent that takes her right back to the autumn before everything in her world changed. Even before I re-read my older review, the apples came back to me. It’s just one of those details I’ve never forgotten.
The whole book, too, brings attention to the idea of religion as a form of tyranny — and how those in the Plague Village were eventually destroyed because they believed they were being “punished” by God, so shouldn’t try to break free. Selflessly, too, they opted to quarantine themselves — a terrifying decision. Now, of course, we’re talking about the year 1666 — not 2010. I know freedom of thought and religion weren’t exactly, um, acceptable. But it’s scary to think how closely folks were once ruled by superstition, if you want to see it that way, and unable to seek a way out. It was impossible in that time, I know, but crazy to think how far we’ve come.
I loved this book when I read it two years ago, and I definitely think I would still enjoy reading it today. Would my opinion have changed in the time since I first cracked the spine? Probably not, though I think I would view it with a different “dystopian” lens now after reading something like Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It. But probably in a good way.