A few days ago, while browsing the shelves of a closing-down sale at a second-hand bookshop, I stumbled across a copy of Geraldine Brooks’ novel, Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague (2001). On a whim I decided to buy it, not knowing quite what to expect.
Very quickly, the engaging narrative brought me under its spell. It weaves a fiction based on the real experiences of the Peak District ‘plague village’ of Eyam, which, in an act of self-sacrifice, voluntarily quarantined itself when it became infected with the Great Plague in 1666.
The story is told from the point of view of a seemingly common young woman, Anna Frith, who works as a housemaid to the visionary rector and his wife. However, as the tale unfolds, this young woman, amidst the great loss and suffering brought by the disease, undergoes a startling transformation.
Anna becomes an embodiment of selfless service and her intellect and intuition are awakened as she helps her friends and neighbours through the seemingly unrelenting hardships. With her employers, Elinor and Michael Mompellion, she works day and night to comfort and attempt to heal the physical and mental suffering of the sick, the dying and the grieving.
There are many other responses to the onset of the plague, which, day by day, carries more innocent lives away in its clutches. Some turn to self-flagellation and isolation, others seek scapegoats in a bloodthirsty witch-hunt and certain individuals ruthlessly take advantage of their desperate neighbours in an hour when collective strength is so vital.
In the chaos of the rising insanity, Anna struggles to keep her balance as her small familiar world is slowly rotted away by the infestation. With a mind that grows fiercely strong, she begins to question the dogmatic religious justifications for the epidemic. Her final self-empowerment sets her free from the social and intellectual confines that she has always lived with.
This well-researched novel not only gives great insight into a fascinating period of history, but also into the dynamics of a community struggling to come to terms with an horrific trauma that leaves in its wake hundreds of deaths, fear, misery and superstition. Brooks’ gleaming tapestry of description brings the story to life. The intricate attention to the small details suggests that beauty remains alive even when the bigger picture is bleak and tragic.
Year of Wonders is a capturing exploration of the human condition, I was both touched and inspired by the actions of the courageous protagonist, a convincing heroine. However, I feel her internal transformation would have reached its true culmination had it concluded in a deep spiritual realisation which unfortunately, by the end of the novel, still eludes her.