Sunday, July 13, 2008

Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks has gotten lots of press lately for her newest book, People of The Book. But I’ve had Year of Wonders on my list since it came out, so I thought I’d start with this one. It’s a beautifully written account of one village’s encounter with bubonic plague in Restoration England (1666), told in the voice of Anna Frith, a woman who survives the disease. It’s based on the true story of the village of Eyam, in Derbyshire, England, which voluntarily quarantined itself to prevent the spread of the disease into the surrounding villages.

Brooks avoids the temptation to instill Anna with 21st century understanding; thus Anna is as baffled by the plague’s origin and means of contagion as are her neighbors. She bravely nurses her family and friends, assisted by the protestant minister and his wife. The townspeople are a mix of gentry, miners, small farmers, and craftspeople, and the book provides an interesting study in how people lived, and how their lives fell apart in the face of catastrophe.

Why do I like books about the plague? Is that kind of weird? I especially enjoyed this one because it’s contemporaneous with the first book I ever read in which the plague figured strongly: Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor. I still remember Winsor’s vivid descriptions of the Great Plague of London, more than 30 years after reading it. Another good book about the plague is Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, which is really time travel science fiction. And one more along these same lines (if you can stand him) is Michael Crichton’s Timeline (and I have to admit that I have a weakness for his thrillers). There’s just something elemental about the plague, even though these days a simple course of antibiotics does the trick, and people don't so much live among flea-infested rats, thank heavens.

(Book 26, 2008)

6 comments:

Steph said...

Expanding the genre to include both books about real mass catastrophes (like plagues) and fictitious ones includes the entire genre of post-apocalyptic sci-fi, which appeals to me greatly as a twisted reader. A great example is a book called "Earth Abides" - can't remember the author, but it's about a group of people trying to re-assemble some sort of society after a contemporary plague. I don't think there's anything sick about this particular fascination - I just read an essay by Michael Chabon in his latest collection of nonfiction for McSweeneys in which he discusses the sub-genre of apocalypse fiction, particularly "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy, which holds the same kind of fascination for me. I hope this makes you feel less demented and more normal.

Becky said...

Yes, anything to feel less demented.

Susan B. said...

Yeah, there are a lot of books out with that theme. I also recommend "The Pesthouse" by Jim Crace and "Oryx and Crake" by Margaret Atwood.

But one of the best depictions of the plague I've read in a book that's brilliant for all kinds of reasons occurs in Maria McCann's "As Meat Loves Salt." I read it before "Year of Wonders" and then could not get into the latter.

Berkeley Papers said...
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People of The Book is a fabulous book... I have to say I've read so many novels written by Geraldine, but this one overcame all my expectations and actually is the best of the best I've read since ever.

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