No epidemic has equaled the devastation of the Bubonic Plague, which decimated between one-third and three-quarters of Europe’s population in the Middle Ages and continued to flare up in destructive pockets for centuries after. In Year of Wonders, Geraldine Brooks eerily captures every aspect of life during the plague: the gruesomely painful death, the speed with which the disease spread and the superstitions surrounding it, which rivaled the plague itself for horror.
Brooks takes as her inspiration the town of Eyam, a real-life village in England’s Derbyshire countryside. The skeleton of her novel comes from history, from a mysterious and unpredicted outbreak of the plague in Eyam. For reasons we will never know for sure, but which played fiercely on the writer’s imagination, the people of Eyam took a vow not to run from their village in the hope of saving themselves. Instead, they stayed put and nursed each other until death did them part. It is reasonable to view this extraordinary sacrifice as a public service, as the inhabitants of Eyam thus kept the contagion within their village when they could so easily have panicked and, in fleeing the scene of death, taken the infection all over rural England. The Bubonic Plague may sound like a morbid subject. Yet the topic fascinates, in part because a study of the plague is always a study in human nature, revealing the extremes of nobility and depravity people are capable of when faced with pain and fear of the unknown. Brooks uses the story of Eyam as a backdrop for characters and stories that illustrate these extremes.
Year of Wonders could not have been an easy novel to write. In the ordinary disaster narrative, suspense comes from not knowing whether the community under attack will survive its menace. But anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the Black Death knows from the beginning how Year of Wonders will end. At least two-thirds of the village will die. As a microcosm of the epidemic, Eyam’s death toll will mirror the plague’s overall totals.
So Brooks must create suspense elsewhere, surprising us by how this character rises to the challenge with tireless dedication while that one succumbs to depression and another loses her mind. The full range of plague-related superstitions finds its way into Brooks’ Eyam. Some villagers look for a witch to blame while others dabble in witchcraft, hoping to ward off their fate. One character takes to self-flagellation in the hope of placating an angry Christian God.
The story is told through the eyes of Anna Frith, a young woman with two boys to raise. Frith is the widow of a miner, and she works as a servant in the homes of the village squire and rector. In most ways, she is a conventional, if unusually quick-witted, woman. She married young, her education is haphazard, and she is disinclined to question the religious beliefs that serve as the town’s infrastructure. Were it not for the plague, she would no doubt have lived and died in the same 17th century English country village, without leaving a detectable trace. The extraordinary circumstances of the plague derail her from this path of least resistance and evoke a heroism in her character of which even she herself is only vaguely aware until the novel’s last pages.
A native of Australia and a former correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, Geraldine Brooks has previously written two critically acclaimed works of nonfiction, Foreign Correspondence and Nine Parts of Desire. With Year of Wonders, she proves equally adept at writing gripping historical fiction.
Lynn Hamilton writes from Tybee Island, Georgia.