Stories of disasters and disease are difficult to get right. Human anxiety of such events occurring, especially in this day and age, are often why we find such stories so enthralling. But often they simply feed our anxieties of such events rather than give us hope. The biggest reason for this is because the main character of this kind of story is usually the disaster or the disease. The so-called “characters” of disaster stories typically consist of nothing more than stereotypes, merely serving the purpose of being survivors of the catastrophe. The pandemic becomes the spectacle and suffering we desire to witness, and the survivors are mere filler.
Year of Wonders is quite the opposite of the aforementioned kind of story. Never before have I read a book whose plot revolves around a plague where the characters are at the forefront. And characters they are! Rather than simply focusing on the horrors of the pandemic, Geraldine Brooks presents the pandemic through the eyes of the people who encounter it. Yes, this is a story about survivors, but survivors the reader gets to know and love. The reader is as close to the driver’s seat of this journey as they can possibly be. It’s the first book I’ve read in a long time where I felt true grief for its characters, and was just as exhausted as they were by the time the ordeal was over. But through all the pain and hardship, the story succeeds in giving a glimmer of hope to readers in utter despair.
Year of Wonders is told through the writings of Anna Frith, a widowed mother living in an unnamed “Plague Village”. When Anna discovers that a visitor in her home has come under the Plague, the disease quickly spreads to the rest of the village. Since Anna is willing to help, she is recruited by the local rector and his wife to assist in mediating the disease among the infected. When the Plague quickly worsens and Anna’s only two children die, the rector is desperate to rally the village into order and unity to fight back against the disease. Despite great fear, most of the village complies. But hope and faith only last so long. As the villagers witness the death toll outnumber the living, they resort to shaming their problems on accused witches and other occult measures to vent their frustration. Anna and the rector’s family work tirelessly to keep the village in composure, but they can only do so much before mere human nature bests them as well.
It’s hard to pinpoint just what the best part of this novel is because it is so well written. The best place to start is how the story is orchestrated. The book opens after-the-fact of the plague, but the device isn’t superfluous. The reader truly wants to know how these villagers got where they are through Brooks’ eloquent language of wounded souls. When we then meet the villagers before the disaster, we get a glimpse of their past-life, the way things were before, but this peace doesn’t last long by any means. Most stories like this would take a full third of the book before the pandemic is fully underway. Brooks shows the utter viciousness and rapid-spread of the Plague as it takes victim after victim soon after its arrival. From here, the story refuses to let up. I have said that for many-a-book, but readers are offered little reprieve from gruesomely graphic accounts of different Plague victims. Such a device puts the reader in Anna’s shoes as she witnesses horror after unhinging horror.
These horrors are conveyed quite well, because Anna is the lifeblood of this story. The reader hears every emotion in her head without disrupting the momentum of the novel. We feel her grief at the death of her children, her delight in a full-night’s rest, her jealousy of others’ “perfect” lives, and her anger at those whom have done her wrong. But what we feel the most is her perseverance. Her kind soul is always willing to help those in need, and she will drop anything at a moment’s notice to do so. Her endurance is experienced by the reader as she goes from deathbed to deathbed, struggling to give peace to many souls’ final moments. At times, some of her actions feel a bit of a stretch, given all that she manages to do under such exhaustion. In addition, there are some tasks she undertakes in the second act which seem a little unfitting, almost like she is attempting the impossible. Given both these events and all she is able to accomplish in the after-math, her actions felt beyond many people’s ability, especially for Anna. Again, it’s a stretch, but it fits her motivations. She’s seen so much death in her life that she wants to make others’ lives better in any way she can, even right down to saving one. This is an emotion many people feel, which is why Anna feels like such a real person.
The shock-value of the story is truly something to behold, as Brooks presents dozens of gruesome cases of the Plague; no two victims suffer the same. But also, desperate times call for desperate measures, and those at their emotional breaking point will do whatever it takes to survive the disease. It is here when Anna and the rector’s family contend with fears produced by the Plague, and not just the epidemic itself. With this, the book is never short of shocking moments which build to one of multiple unexpected climaxes in the final third, which places a near-overbearing emotional load on the reader.
The language of the book is also well presented. It’s not only readable and reads fast, but it contains various dialect, mannerisms, and idioms of the setting. It isn’t Old English, so it fits the pacing of the story well. The religious echoes of the language are just as prominent in the story, as characters try to hold on to faith amidst such terrible struggles. With that, given the setting, the theme of witches also comes into play. Like most witch hunts of the time, the accusations are futile, but the willingness of the characters to take advantage of people’s fear of the ideology is consistently abused. It is nonetheless a testament of desperate measures by individuals to cast blame for their hardships where it is never due.
Despite rather depressing themes and events littered throughout the novel, readers of this review would be surprised that Year of Wonders contains in it a message of hope. I never realized until writing this review the irony, yet delightful truth of the title. Over the course of the year in which the story takes place it still has its share of redemption, whether it be the willingness of a human to make sacrifices, the revival of a thought lost loved one, or a simply unexplainable miracle. The resolution ends in a most unexpected place, both in setting and story, but is nonetheless a testament to a steady soul being rewarded amidst times of hardship. Year of Wonders is an enjoyably exhaustive novel to read, and readers with interest should take caution, but it is nonetheless a captivating and moving story.
-David Brashier; Boone, North Carolina; January 2018