Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders appears, on first glance, to be a standard piece of historical fiction geared toward women. It features a strong heroine. It spends a lot of its time dealing with tasks that are traditionally considered to be those of women: cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, tending to the sick. There’s some romance. There’s the always-popular witch hunt when people become ill. Yet to dismiss this book as simply another piece of historical fiction is to miss the extraordinary storytelling Brooks displays here.
Year of Wonders tells the story of a small English mining town beset by plague. Anna Frith, our heroine, is a young wife and mother who escaped an abusive childhood home to find a short amount of happiness with Sam before her husband is killed in a mining accident, leaving her with two young boys. She later takes in a lodger to make ends meet, who turns out to be carrying the plague. Soon, her boys are both gone, and the village is taken in a wave of disease no one can stop. The village, spurred by their minister, Michael Mompellion, takes the drastic step of sealing themselves off from the world, to avoid the spread of the disease.
A pretty standard story, after all. I’ve heard it told before. What makes Year of Wonders unique in a crowded field is Brooks’ gift for character development. Anna is a full-rounded person, with a quickness of mind and a caring heart. Yet she also takes some questionable actions, such as allowing her father to suffer when he is convicted of stealing from an ill man. In other words, she’s human. It’s interesting to be in her head and to see the events in the village unfold before her eyes.
Many of the other female characters are the same way. Anys, the town’s younger healing woman, is brusque, yet, through her actions, Brooks indicates that she cares about the people she treats. Elinor Mompellion, Michael Mompellion’s wife, is mild and gentle, but not without her secrets. Brooks excels at showing us women in their entirety, which is better than most writers can manage.
Brooks’ word choice and description is wonderful, as well. Her writing has a tone that is approachable, for the most part, but also contains vocabulary and phrasing that indicate to the reader the book is about a different time and a different place.
My main problem with Year of Wonders is in the development of some of the male characters. Some fell a little flat. I suppose they really aren’t the focus of the book, but it would be nice if they were their own people. The only one I found compelling for a good amount of the book was Mr. Mompellion, but by the end of the book, I had little interest in him. It’s too bad. Their actions might have been more interesting if we knew about them as we went along, instead of afterward, like the childhood of Anna’s father, or not at all, such as her dead husband, Sam.
On the whole, though, Year of Wonders is a very good historical novel. It felt well-thought-out, smooth, and realistic. Those three things go quite a ways to making a book a worthy read, which this definitely is.