Year of Wonders (2001)
Author: Geraldine Brooks
In the English village of Eyam, a mining accident claims the life of Anna Firth's husband, Sam. Anna decides to supplement her meager finances by taking in a border, the village's new tailor, George Viccars. Viccars charms both Anna and her two children, Jamie and Tom. All is well until Viccars orders a parcel of fabric from London. The parcel arrives infected with plague bacteria. Viccars is the first to become infected. As he lies dying, he implores Anna, "Burn it! Burn it all!" Anna entreats the villagers to destroy the garments that Viccars had begun to fashion for them from the infected fabric. The villagers refuse and the plague begins to spread. Among the early dead are Anna's two children. As the situation worsens, Vicar Mompellion proposes that the village be quarantined. The villagers reluctantly agree. Communication with the outside world is established by leaving messages in exchange for goods at a designated boundary stone. The rising death toll greatly weakens the composure of the villagers. An angry mob hang the midwife and herbalist, Anys Gowdie, accusing her of being a witch. As punishment for various crimes, Anna's father, Josia Bont, has his hands impailed on knives. When Bont dies from the wounds, his wife Aphys goes crazy and murders Vicar Mompellion's wife, Elinor. SPOILER: When Vicar Mompellion convinces the villagers to burn their belongings, the plague lessens and gradually dies out. Anna assumes Anys Gowdie's role as the village midwife and herbalist. She delivers a bastard baby to the noblewoman, Mrs. Bradford;But in order to save Mrs. Bradford's reputation, Anna flees town with the child. She travels to Oran, Andalusia, where she becomes the student and wife of the Muslim doctor Ahmed Bey.
Geographical Setting: Eyam, Derbyshire, England; Oran, Andalusia (Algeria)
Time Period: 1665-1666
Time period and setting are two main appeal characteristics of this novel. The author's narrative language is full of perceptive and vividly described details concerning life in a small Stuart-era English village. Dialogue scenes are engaging and understandable; but full of the necessary portion of colloquial/antiquated language to make them believable. Another main appeal concerns the strong central character of Anna Firth. The first person narrative style personalizes Anna for the reader. More importantly, Anna's unique equanimity makes her particularly appealing to modern readers: She has her devout religious side, yet she also acknowledges her own sensuality. She senses the Vicar and his wife are the people most likely to appeal to the villagers' spirit and conscience, yet she also believes the Gowdie family's herbal medecine will serve the villagers' physical health better than prayer. Clearly the central theme, concerning how the villagers respond to the Plague, is another strong appeal of the novel. The villagers' reactions are always dramatically compelling, yet remain believable; well within the boundaries of historical accuracy. The characters are very predictable even Anna Firth, the main character. No one has a sudden change of conscience and becomes a hero. Brooks keeps the characters very real-portraying that in times of tragedy and grief even sometimes the good people do very bad things.
Read-alikes: Readers who enjoy Geraldine Brooks' New York Times notable novel, Year of Wonders (2001) may want to follow up with some of the author's other work: Brooks' well-researched opus, 9 Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women (1995), which will be of particular interest to readers who are curious about Year of Wonders character Anna Firth's new life amidst Islamic culture. For those seeking additional historical background concerning the English Plague of 1665, A. Lloyd Moote and Dorothy C. Moote's The Great Plague: The Story of London's Most Deadly Year (2004) will be of special interest. Also consider In the Wake of the Plague by Norman F. Cantor. This book will help give you additional background and factual information about Year of Wonders. It will help separate the fact from the fiction as well as give you factual information for how the world went on after the plague just like Anna had to. Another good one to read next is A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe. This is another first person account of the plague and the people who lived through it. The descriptions in both stories are very vivid and create pictures for the reader to see. This book is set in London while Year of Wonders is set in a village outside of London. Readers may also enjoy Phillip Gooden's richly descriptive historical novel, Mask of Night (2004), a murder mystery concerned with the epidemic's manifestation in London and Oxford. Another similar book is The White by Deborah Larsen. This book takes place in America not England but it is also a historical novel with a similar tone to Year of Wonders. Both books are describe tragic events in history that dramatically alter the characters lives. Both books contain the somber tone which lends itself to setting the mood the reader will get from the novel. The main character is a similar strong young female who is willing to fight for her desires and to survive. The last read-alike is The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber. This book contains very similar characters to Brooks. The characters are written very "real". The good people are not always good and do not always do the right thing. The development of the characters and the story are similar as grief and tragedy change everything. This historical story also takes place in England in close to the same time period. Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron (1350) may also appeal to readers seeking fiction concerned with earlier manifestations of the Plague. Boccaccio's s tale concerns a group of 14th century Italian noble men and women who abandon Florence in an effort to escape the ravages of the "Black Death." For those especially drawn to the theme of quarantine, The Plague by Albert Camus is especially recommended. Ironically, Camus' novel is set in 20th Century Oran, Algeria; the same city that is Anna Firth's final destination in Year of Wonders. Finally, for readers seeking additional novels that employ a richly detailed first person narrative told by a young 17th century woman, Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring (2001) is strongly recommended.
Red Flags: Sex, violence