Sep 1, 2010

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Year of Wonders is set in 1665-6 in the village of Eyam, Derbyshire, and is based on a real occurrence: historical records tell us when the Bubonic plague reached Eyam, its inhabitants voluntarily quarantined themselves to keep the disease from spreading to neighbouring towns. Brooks tells the story of the plague year from the point of view of eighteen-year-old Anna Frith. Anna is an ordinary woman who works at the rectory as a domestic servant, and despite her young age she is a widow and a mother of two. During the plague year, she suffers many loses; learns much about herself; and befriends the rector and especially his wife, Elinor Mompellion. The three take the care of the town into their hands, but most of the time they can do little but watch helplessly as the world as they’ve always known it changes beyond recognition.

Geraldine Brooks begins this story in media res, in the autumn of 1666, when Eyam’s population had already been more than halved by the plague. She then takes us back to 1665 and shows us how it all began. Normally this is a narrative technique I like, but I’m not completely sure it was effective in the case of Year of Wonders—on which more soon. Anyway, I liked how Geraldine Brooks used this set-up to comment on gender, class and power; I liked her examination of social tensions, fear, violence, and the many factors that will push people over the edge; and I liked how well she captured the fear, disbelief, despair, numbness and loneliness of the townspeople as the population continued to drop.

I also liked Anna a lot – especially the fact that Brooks picked a narrator with a certain degree of powerlessness who becomes more powerful as the story progresses, thanks to her role as a caretaker and to the knowledge and expertise she acquires. As the number of those afflicted by the plague increases, the traditional social order erodes, and Anna’s age, gender, widowhood and social stand cease to weight as heavily on whether or not she’s taken seriously. What matter is that she sits with the sick when nobody else will, and that though she can’t work miracles, she can bring them some relief. Of course, whether or not these changes are lasting is a whole other matter; and as the story of another character shows us, there’s danger in power and in the visibility it brings, especially when so many are desperately looking for something or someone to blame.

Most of all I liked the fact that Year of Wonders is a story about a world “on the brink of modernity”, as Brooks herself put it. Through the inhabitants of Eyam, she attempts to capture a paradigm shift; to portray the mindset of a group of people who were experimenting with new ways of thinking about the world. In Eyam different faiths, beliefs and forms of viewing the world coexist, though not always peacefully as it can be expected. There are some who see the plague as divine punishment for the townspeople’s sins; others as the result of a curse or the practice of witchcraft; others as a natural phenomenon to which God, if present at all, is indifferent; and others still, like Anna, as a natural phenomenon whose occurrence shouldn’t necessarily be interpreted in terms of faith. My one complaint is that Brooks didn’t take these ideas further – Year of Wonders is not a very long novel, but there was perhaps room for a little more depth when dealing with these issues.

I quite enjoyed this book for the most part, but unfortunately the final section lost me. First there’s the problem I mentioned earlier, with the in media res beginning: you know from the very start which characters survive and which ones don’t, and the death of a certain character in particular is foreshadowed so often that when it does happen, it no longer has the emotional impact it could have had – instead, the whole thing just feels overly dramatic, faintly ridiculous, and far too drawn out. (I kind of feel like a horribly callous person for saying this, but I really can’t help it.)

After that a lot of equally dramatic things happen in quick succession, and I’m afraid that my suspension of disbelief deserted me for good at this point. It’s not so much what happens in itself; it’s the fact that the final section feels so at odds with the emotional tone of the rest of the book. Though it deals with tragic events, Year of Wonders is for the most part a very restrained novel. Anna sounds like someone who was numbed by so much grief, and for some reason this felt more real to me than the histrionic tone of the final forty pages or so.

I could say that Anna’s initial moderation struck me as more true to the worldview of the time period than the final drama, but to be fair I have no reason at all to believe that seventeenth-century people were any less given to strong expressions of emotion than we are. Yet there was something about the ending – I cannot pinpoint what – that felt wrong to me. Perhaps it all comes down to the fact that in historical fiction, the perception of accuracy can matter as much as accuracy itself. At any rate, this was a very personal reaction, and I don’t expect that other readers will necessarily feel the same

As you can tell, I didn’t love Year of Wonders nearly as much as I loved March, though for the first half or so I was convinced that I was going to. Then again, this was Geraldine’s Brooks first novel, so it’s only natural that it’s not quite as polished or satisfying as her later work. I do like her writing a lot, as well the unusual points of view she picks and the themes she deals with, so I know I’m going to continue to read her.

Bits I liked:
At day’s end, when I leave the rectory for home, I prefer to walk through the orchard on the hill rather than go by the road and risk meeting people. After all we’ve been through together, it’s just not possible to pass with a polite, ‘Good night t’ye’. And yet I haven’t the strength for more. Sometimes, not often, the orchard can bring back better times to me. These memories of happiness are fleeting things, reflections in a stream, glimpsed all broken for a second and then swept away in the current of grief that is our life now. I can’t say that I ever feel what it felt like then, when I was happy. But sometimes something will touch the place where that feeling was, a touch as slight and swift as the brush of a moth’s wing in the dark.

I open the door to my cottage this evening on a silence so thick it falls upon me like a blanket. Of all the lonely moments of my day, this one is always the loneliest. I confess I have sometimes been reduced to muttering my thoughts aloud like a madwoman when the need for a human voice becomes too strong. I mislike this, for I fear the line between myself and madness is as fine these days as a cobweb, and I have seen what it means when a soul crosses over into that dim and wretched place. But I, who always prided myself on grace, now allow myself a deliberate clumsiness. I let my feet land heavily. I clatter the hearth tools. And when I draw water, I let the bucket chain grind on the stone, just to hear ragged noise instead of the smothering silence.
Other blog reviews:
Linus’s Blanket, books i done read, Medieval Bookworm, Write Meg!, The Book Whisperer, Fizzy Thoughts, Coffee Stained Pages, Book-a-rama, The Written World, Serendipity, At Home With Books, Age 30+: A Lifetime of Books, Lakeside Musings

(Have I missed yours?)

41 comments:

  1. I'm not sure I really want to give Geraldine Brooks another try. I thought March was okay but not as good as most people feel it is, there was something missing for me though I was glad to find a counter narrative to Little Women, which is a book I really dislike.
    Your review seems to indicate that March is her best work so unless future books really appeal to me individually I think Brooks and I are over.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "he death of a certain character in particular is foreshadowed so often that when it does happen, it no longer has the emotional impact it could have had – instead, the whole thing just feels overly dramatic, "

    I agree with this so much. Year of Wonders was a so-so novel for me. There were a lot of parts I loved (and that had lovely prose) but then a lot of stuff that bothered me. That also happened with March but to a less degree (I liked March as a whole much more than this one). The last part rubbed me in a bad way. I didn't quite like the twist in revealing a certain character's motivations. And just, I don't know, I felt a bit disappointed.

    Pity because Brooks can really write when she wants.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I really loved this book, until it got to that ending which was seemed completely outside both the realm of possibility and the more importantly the likely choice that the characters would make given what we had learned about them the rest of the way through the book.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I loved this book, even though I do agree a lot with your criticisms especially about the overly-dramatic bits towards the end and the rather weird ending.

    Reading up about Geraldine Brooks I kind of wonder at her reasoning for putting the ending in - to serve what purpose? Sometimes people try to stretch things too far to try to make a point. But oh well I really, really, really enjoyed the first 3 or so quarters of it.

    I haven't read any of Brooks' other books but I have them both. I do keep hearing slight criticisms of People of the Book. I wonder if Brooks is a good writer but just gets lost in the plot?

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thats a shame it didnt fully work for you as the storyline and time period sounds fasinating.

    ReplyDelete
  6. It is a fascinating time period. There is something so apocalyptic about the Bubonic Plague. But generally I feel like it takes all of the steam out of a story to start with the ending and flash back.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I think Brooks should have stuck to journalism. (Oooh mean!) HaHa. I've got a copy of this kicking around the place, but have never got around to reading it. Was less inclined to do so after March, which I did not like one bit. After reading your review I think I'll just let this book stay in its hiding place. :)

    ReplyDelete
  8. I've read this, March, and People of the Book, and I still can't decide what I think about Geraldine Brooks. I really like certain aspects of her writing and her stories, but she does have this frustrating tendency toward heavy-handedness that keeps me from falling in love with her writing.

    I totally agree with you about the ending here. It went from being a quiet and, as you say, restrained novel to a novel of wild abandon. The same happened with People of the Book, except that it suddenly became a thriller. (There were tone problems all the way through that book, IMO.)

    ReplyDelete
  9. I think I'll skip this book, but I did like hearing about the true events it was based on. I might have to go read up some more on that.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I've been meaning to read Brooks, but haven't had a chance yet- but I think I will steer clear of this. I can't stand it when a book treats a foregone conclusion as a surprise.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I completely loved this book right up until the end where it became so utterly ridiculous that now whenever I think about it I cringe!! I thought it was doing so well and then what could have been a meaningful and subtle ending, was ruined with drama that even The Bold and The Beautiful couldn't match!! Hmmm.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Too bad you didn't love this. I wasn't a huge fan of March, but really enjoyed People of the Book, so I'm not sure about this one. It is intriguing but sounds like it has quite a few issues. Either way I can't pick it up for a month, so I'll just keep it on the list for eventually!

    ReplyDelete
  13. I interestingly had the opposite with Brooks in that I really liked this one but I haven't liked anything else enough of hers to actually finish any of them.

    I think though it might be because Eyam is down the road from my home town of Matlock Bath and I know it so well and it came alive for me again along with the true story - though this is highly fictionalised.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I felt much the same way about this book as you did. I felt the ending was incongruous, but it remains one of my favorite books for all the sections leading up to said ending. It was a great book, but I agree with you that it had some pretty deep flaws. Very perceptive review, Anna! Thanks for bringing this book back to my mind!

    ReplyDelete
  15. I haven't read this book (or anything by Brooks for that matter), but I completely understand what you mean about the narrative tension being blown from the very beginning. Of late I've been encountering a bunch of books that are structured in such a way that they reveal so many of their secrets at the beginning that the bulk of the novel is fairly anticlimactic. I think it takes an enormously skilled author to start with earthshattering info and then go back and explain how we got there in a compelling manner where it still feels there's something at stake.

    ReplyDelete
  16. The last part of the book was not my favorite part either but on the whole I loved this book. I think because I really felt like I was in another time. I have People of the Book waiting for me and definitely look forward to it.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I feel like she spent so much of the novel being all, This person is gonna die!! that by the time it came time for that person to die she figured she had to make it DRAMATICAL since we all knew this person was going to die anyways.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I completely agree with you about the ending! It really veered off into left field for me. Up until then I really liked the story (although the foreshadowing was a bit much).

    ReplyDelete
  19. I don't much care for Geraldine Brooks; somehow I always end up feeling that she had a really smashing idea that she was not able to master. So I end up rating her an A for the idea, B for writing, and C for emotional resonance and fully-realized characters, and for some reason, that always averages to a C+, which is not at all mathematically correct.

    ReplyDelete
  20. I loved this book when I read it but Eyam is near here and I ve been a few times ,so it appeal to me a lot but her other books are good too march was nice ,lovely review all the best stu

    ReplyDelete
  21. Oh, bummer that you & others are less than crazy about this (and your criticisms are things that tend to bother me too), since I have an ongoing fascination with plague/quarantine literature and was excited to read the plot synopsis. But a sudden onslaught of unconvincing drama at the end does not sound like my cup of tea. Ah well.

    ReplyDelete
  22. I don't think I've ever read a book that deals with this period of history, so for that reason I'd love to read Year of Wonders! Even though it clearly has some flaws, it's probably an interesting book all the same.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Sorry you didn't like this one as much. It is one of my favorites. Something that is interesting - and I'm relying on second-hand knowledge - is that this book was supposed to ROCK it's publication. However, it came out either on or right after 9-11 and so basically it tanked & didn't get near the attention it was supposed to have gotten. At that point, no one was up for "dark." Anyway, I think that's a neat book note...

    ReplyDelete
  24. Having never read Brooks, I don't think I'll start with this one. She's been on my radar for some time, but for some reason, I don't have any of her books waiting on the shelves. I'll have to rectify that.

    ReplyDelete
  25. I read this one several years ago, and my memory is a fond one. Sadly, I don't remember enough to know what happened in that last section!!! Now I suppose I'll just have to re-read! :D

    ReplyDelete
  26. I came across this book all on my own several years ago and was so delighted by the beginning that I don't remember being at all critical of the ending. In fact, I remember it fondly as a heck of a good book. Now I might have to find it at the library again and reread the ending to see if I was just too caught up to have any perspective.

    ReplyDelete
  27. I really enjoyed this book, although I would be hard pressed to dislike any historical fiction based on the plague. It is just so intriguing to me!

    ReplyDelete
  28. So many people complain about that ending, didn't her editor notice it? Did he/she say, "Um, what? You need to work on that."? It was like a different book suddenly.

    ReplyDelete
  29. I feel like I'm going to hate the ending to this book :( But it does sound so damn good at the same time. Sounds really depressing too, but that's never stopped me from liking a book :p But really...half the population being wiped out by the plague and and 18 year old who's been widowed with two children :(...all things that have happened, no doubt, but still very sad.

    ReplyDelete
  30. hmmm...I haven't read even a single book by her although I do have this one in my TBR pile. I guess I'll have to be prepared for the ending.

    ReplyDelete
  31. I read this a couple of years ago but I do remember enjoying it. March was more of a so-so novel for me but I really liked People of the Book. I've also read Nine Parts of Desire (non-fiction).

    ReplyDelete
  32. Oh my goodness...it sounds like I would absolutely adore this book! (At least until the ending. ;) ) But honestly, the book you described up to that point sounds so wonderful, that I think I might have to give it a go despite knowing I may be disillusioned with the ending.

    ReplyDelete
  33. I really loved this book ... until the very end. In fact, I sometimes recommend to friends that they read everything except the epilogue. :)

    ReplyDelete
  34. 'As the number of those afflicted by the plague increases, the traditional social order erodes, and Anna’s age, gender, widowhood and social stand cease to weight as heavily on whether or not she’s taken seriously.' It's so conflicting to look back at history and wonder if without terrible things happening to the rest of the population big social changes would ever have happened for women. I like to think they would, but it's hard to cut your knowledge of history off and think in hypotheticals.

    And what you said about needing the perception of accuracy as much as accuracy is so smart. I think about this with the Victorians A LOT, especially when I started finding out that the Victorians were quite adventurous sexually. If you wrote a Victorian novel where everyone wasn't all coy and shy would people react against it because it doesn't fit with prevailing ideas about the Victorians?

    Ah well you still have People of the Book left to go, maybe that one will be really, really good.

    ReplyDelete
  35. Sibylle: Little Women is one of those books I link for its gaps and silences, if that makes sense, and I really enjoyed March because it filled some of them. March does seem to be a general favourite, but these are the only two I've read to date.

    Exiledbyaccident: Yeah, that twist was just....what? It came out of nowhere, and it was so at odds with her characterisation up to that point. Anyway, I'm so glad I'm not the only one who feels this way!

    Marg: I'm so relieved that I'm not alone! And I completely agree with this: "...seemed completely outside both the realm of possibility and the more importantly the likely choice that the characters would make given what we had learned about them the rest of the way through the book." Exactly.

    Fiona: I wonder the same myself. I just can't see what it achieved! But the first 3 quarters really were very good.

    Jessica: Yes, it's too bad, as it could have been a brilliant book.

    Sandy: There really is! The in media res technique impresses me when done well for that very reason: it's SO hard not to make a mess of it.

    Violet: I'd say that if you didn't like March then probably you wouldn't like this one either, but then again some of the other commenters have liked this and not March, so who knows :P

    Teresa: After March I thought I might have found a new favourite author, but now that I've read Year of Wonders it no longer looks that way :\ I didn't find Match heavy-handed, but I do see what you mean in this case.

    Amanda: I'd love to read more about the true story of the place myself. I promise a full report if I get to visit it :P (It's not too far from where I'll be).

    Clare: Yeah, and it's like raych said: she felt she had to make it extra dramatic because readers knew it would happen all along, and the result was a huge mess.

    Elise: Yes, yes, exactly!

    Amy: It's a fairly quick read, so I guess you might as well give it a try and see how you feel!

    Simon: I can see how knowing the place would make the book even more resonant. She mentions there's a museum in Eyam in the afterwords. I'd love to visit it sometimes!

    Zibilee: Yes, it was great up until the ending, so all in all I'm still definitely glad that I read it.

    Steph: I wonder what authors are thinking when they make that kind of choice. What do they expect it to achieve? It does take a lot of skill to pull that off well, which is why I'm always so impressed when someone manages it. But when in doubt, best not to try!

    ReplyDelete
  36. Iliana: She did capture the time period very well, and I loved the writing for the most part. If only I could change the ending :P

    raych: Yep, exactly. Which... did not work.

    Alyce: Yes, I agree. If I ever read it again I'm going to stop 50 pages from the ending :P

    Mumsy: lol - bookish equations have a way of defying conventional maths :P

    Stu: It's funny how you and Simon feel the same way for the same reason! I'd love to go to Eyam sometime.

    Emily: I'd say it's still worth reading for the first 3/4s. You can always pretend it ends differently in your head, which is what I think I'll do :P

    Emidy: Yes, I'm still glad I read it. She did bring the time period to life brilliantly.

    Elisabeth: I had no idea! I can see how it'd be a bit too grim for a moment like that.

    Trisha: Though March also seems to divide opinions to some extent, I'd suggest starting there.

    Andi: Hopefully in a few years I'll have forgotten it myself, and will be able to remember the book more fondly ;)

    Jeanne: You and Andi make me curious about how I'll feel about it in a few years!

    Stephanie: It is a fascinating period! If you have any recommendations of other plague books, I'd absolutely love to hear them.

    Chris: It makes you wonder, doesn't it?

    Chris: It is sad, but I loved the first three quarters exactly because it dealt with all that emotion with subtlety, you know? And then suddenly everyone goes nuts :P But yeah, do read it anyway, Chris. I'm not sure if you remember this, but Dewey really loved this one, and she didn't even dislike the ending (I re-read her review on GR after I finished it, and she said it was surprising, but she didn't mind it. I miss her.)

    Violet: Yes, probably expecting something... unusual will help some :P

    Teresa: I'll get to her others at some point - despite my issues with this one, there's a lot about her writing that I like.

    Debi: Definitely do read it anyway! As I was telling Chris, Dewey loved it.

    Heather J: I think that's an excellent idea ;)

    Jodie: I often feel guilty about having those thoughts about WW1 and the vote in Britain in particular, but I can't help but wonder. Also, I've often thought the same about the Victorians. That's one of the reasons why I'm such a Sarah Waters fangirl: she manages to defy our idea of them AND be completely believable. But yes, it does annoy me when people dismiss anything that attributes sexual freedom, early feminism, etc. to the Victorians as historically inaccurate and clearly the result of the interference of the author's modern sensibility, as if any of that happening back then were unthinkable.

    ReplyDelete
  37. Yes WWI is exactly what I was thinking of too. Whenever I see a program that traces a major shift in womens lot back to that event I'm initially unthinkingly going 'yay' then straight after 'oh, oh no that does not make me feel good about myself'.

    ReplyDelete
  38. I loved this book, except for that pesky ending, which just didn't seem to fit at all!

    ReplyDelete
  39. I loved this novel, and I had very mixed feelings about the ending. It intrigued me, but as others have said, it didn't quite seem to fit.

    ReplyDelete
  40. I loved this book! Looks like your cover is a lot nicer looking than mine!

    I linked this post over at Kate's Library as part of my Friday Five.

    ReplyDelete
  41. I was just wondering if you are able to name any gaps or silences that occurred in Year Of Wonders by any of the non-main characters... I would really appreciate any feedback, thankyou

    ReplyDelete

Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.