Home > Kev's Blog > 11-Nov-2013 Book Club – Year of Wonders

11-Nov-2013 Book Club – Year of Wonders

Monday 11 November 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

year_wondersToday was my monthly book club meeting. There were 8 of us – an average number of people … thankfully I know most if the names now!

The book we were reading this month was “Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks”. This one was selected by me, even though I hadn’t read it before. I quite like “historical fiction” and have been to the village the book was about Eyam in Derbyshire when I was a kind – once with school and once with our scout troop.

However I was not overly happy with the book – I liked reading for sure, and there was nothing wrong with it at all, but I felt a bit wanting – the characters were quite flat and she seemed to rush the story from scene to scene where she could have gone into more detail. Anyway most of the other liked it and some also felt she could have fleshed it out a bit more. It reads a bit like a movie script – scene 1, scene 2 etc.

There are 2 reviews:

It begins with the scent of rotting apples and a flush that looks like rose petals blooming beneath the skin. Then the yellow-purple pustule appears, swelling to the size of a newly born piglet. Eventually it bursts, like a pea-pod splitting open, spewing pestilential pus flecked with spots of rotten skin.

This is what the villagers of Eyam, Derbyshire, condemned themselves to in 1666 when they took the heroic decision to quarantine their plague-infested village and prevent the contagion from spreading further. In 1842, William Wood, a descendent of one of the few surviving families, observed in his history of the village that: “The immortal victors of Thermopylae and Marathon have no stronger claim to the admiration of succeeding generations than the villagers of Eyam; who in a sub lime, unparalleled resolution gave up their lives – yea: doomed themselves to pestilential death to save the surrounding country”.

Some 260 villagers, an estimated four-fifths of the population, succumbed to this final and most virulent outbreak of the black death in Britain; but as most of the evidence perished with the population, established facts are hard to come by. With the popular belief that the contagion arrived in a bolt of cloth delivered from London, the situation is tailor-made for fictional adaptation: the self-sacrifice of the villagers of Eyam has appeared in novels, plays and even an opera. In her first essay into historical fiction, Geraldine Brooks approaches the situation not as a novelist, but as a war correspondent whose experience of reporting from Gaza, Somalia and Bosnia is keenly felt on every page of this chilling, forensically detailed dispatch from the frontline of the 17th century.

Most historical novelists would have difficulty imagining the near-extermination of an entire community. Brooks doesn’t have to. She is acutely aware that a litany of grisly deaths loses its impact after a while, and uses her experience as a chronicler of contemporary disasters to tell the story of those lucky – or unlucky – enough to survive. Year of Wonders is a tale of fragile hope pitted against overwhelming disaster. Like the flaring rosettes of the bubonic rash, it gets under the skin of what it means to be human.

Brooks recounts her story through the eyes of Anna Frith, a shepherdess who aided the village rector in his mission to contain the disease. Anna is a spirited, Hardy-esque heroine, uneducated but resourceful, who is taken under the wing of the rector’s wife Elinor and quickly becomes a devoted, fast-learning protégée. The relationship between Anna, Elinor and her husband forms the novel’s precarious emotional core. History remembers the real rector of Eyam, William Mompesson, as a saintly, inspirational figure who persuaded the village to accept its quarantine. Brooks’s imagined counterpart, Michael Mompellion, is a much more ambiguous and sinister character, cloaked with a charismatic power that occasionally lifts to reveal flashes of a demonic underside. Brooks develops an unsparing analysis of the mixed motives that lurk behind over-developed religious faith, and brings an unflinching eye to her depiction of Mompellion’s perverse, personal war against God.

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