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Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague
Geraldine Brooks
Penguin Putnam/Viking, 308 pages

Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague
Geraldine Brooks
Geraldine Brooks is the author of two acclaimed works of nonfiction, Nine Parts of Desire and Foreign Correspondence. A former war correspondent, her writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.

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A review by William Thompson

On my part a wading into mainstream, this first novel by noted non-fiction writer and former Wall Street Journal correspondent Geraldine Brooks was listed as one of last year's notable books by the New York Times. So why include it here? Not remotely slipstream (nary a ripple; not a rill), with only the most remote or tenuous resemblance to the fantastic found arguably or fabricated in the form of historical reference to the superstitions and witchcraft of the seventeenth century, or perhaps the horrors attending rural customs or the corporal punishments of the period, this novel, as its secondary title suggests, more readily identifies itself with historical fiction, possessing perhaps only a trace of romance as defined through the novels of Jane Austen or especially the Brontė's. While this book does exhibit a haunting quality reminiscent of Wuthering Heights, it could hardly be identified with horror or phantasms any more than its nineteenth century predecessors, despite the obvious and tempting associations. Instead horror and spectral elements are firmly tied to historical if fictional reconstructions that rarely stray very far from realism.

So again, why review this novel in a venue devoted to speculative fiction? Anyone who has read and enjoyed Connie Willis' The Doomsday Book, or Michael Crichton's bestselling and arguably derivative Timeline, as well as a wide number of other alternate histories based upon or utilizing some form of plague as a theme, should find an attraction to historical fiction based upon the period. And some of the adjectives drawn by other authors to publicize and describe this work on its back cover seem almost to hint unintentionally at some hidden, nearly fabulous agenda, words like "wonder" and "horror" repeated throughout the descriptions. Perhaps even more tellingly, the term "witchlike" is applied to the manner in which the author has constructed her recreations. While the use of these adjectives appears entirely textually based, and a rather natural outgrowth of both the title and the narrative's historical depictions, their appearance nonetheless reflects an incorporation into the narrative of elements traditionally associated with both the gothic and romantic dalliances of Victorian authors such as the Brontės, Wilkie Collins or Charles Dickens, and today more normally relegated to the genres than serious fiction. Nonetheless, this presence, I suspect, is intentional on the part of Ms. Brooks, a use and borrowing of plot devices entirely appropriate both to her subject as well as former literary traditions, and in keeping with the tone established by Dryden in the poem from which the book appropriates its title. Further, I imagine the poet himself might have appreciated their inclusion (Dryden and many of his contemporaries more than willing to incorporate the fantastic into their writing, the fabulous only falling into disfavor as a literary device since the nineteenth century, after the sixties tending to accept and emulate the image of its disrepute). While clearly written as historical fiction, and despite the possibility of unfashionable, unintended and likely undesired association, I would argue that anyone familiar with the realms of fantasy, especially those of alternative history, should feel equally comfortable and at home here.

"Inspired by a true story," Ms. Brooks vividly and imaginatively brings a small, rural English village of the late 1660s to life, chronicling the events of a single year in which the simple and unlettered inhabitants are visited by the deadly and indifferent devastation of the plague. Led by the faith and inspiration of their local rector, the inhabitants reluctantly yet courageously agree to quarantine their village, slowly watching as day by day more and more of their numbers succumb and perish, often horribly, from a pestilence typified by painful and swelling buboes, nausea and vomiting, delirium due to fever, and a ninety per cent death rate within four days of contracting the disease. Drawing upon obvious scholarship, the author grippingly conveys not only the horror but the humanity of the villagers' experience, as seen through the eyes of a servant, Anna Frith. Handmaid and friend to the rector's wife, Anna witnesses the loss of all she holds dear: her children, friends and family she grew up with, and eventually her closest and most fond companion. But Anna ultimately is to lose more than just those she has come to know and care about, for the plague destroys not only the body, but the mind, the heart and the spirit. And the social compact is finally torn asunder as well, with equally dire and irreversible consequences.

With great yet understated skill, Ms. Brooks recreates the often unequal struggle for life, understanding and faith of an earlier, less worldly time, fashioning a temporal landscape that she casts compelling with a variety of memorable and singular characters, some of which elicit our approbation, others our censure, but none of which lack at least a moment's sympathy. Customs and superstitions, some of them familiar, others seemingly alien, are described in fascinating detail. The grim and uncertain life of the lead mines, or the sometimes hard and unforgiving mores of the English countryside are incisively and poignantly rendered. The novels' protagonists, even the least significant, are without disregard treated with sensitivity, extended a complexity that can both deceive and be deceived, deception at times extending to include the reader.

While this book is successful both in its historical description of the time and events, as well as in its multi-layered and expressive characterizations, it is perhaps the way in which the author sets up certain expectations on the part of the reader, only to ultimately dismantle and destroy them in the end, that this narrative stands out as more than just another well written and historically accurate fiction. Not wishing to divulge important developments near the end of the story, all I will say is that the narrative appears headed for an expected, and I suppose in some readers' minds gratifying, denouement, only to have earlier appearances and apparent truths utterly and convincingly disassembled. The novel has consciously been constructed to challenge certain literary as well as genre conventions, in addition to, I suspect, some of her readers' preconceptions. While I remain uncertain that the final and somewhat summary ending to this novel does not to a degree lessen the impact and conceptually diminish the author's earlier overthrow of expectations, the conclusion seeming somewhat muted in comparison to what has preceded, I will admit to being initially taken in by the plot's apparent misdirection, so much so that I was actively annoyed by the seeming and anticipated manipulation, only to have my anticipation transformed into pleasant surprise. Smartly done, and a twist in the plot that elevates this novel above the usual.

While I'm not sure I find this work quite the "wonder" of some of its back cover advocates, I would nonetheless strongly urge anyone with an interest in the period or the plague to read this. Extremely well written, and conveying a great sense of authenticity, this is an excellent work of fiction, historical or otherwise. The author's willingness to challenge not only the reader but her own abilities by effectively confronting and taking her narrative apart and in unexpected directions near the end must be acknowledged and admired. And, this is a novel that does more than just a narrate events or explore humanity under adversity, also confronting ideas of faith, religion and social community. Add to this that the author has vividly brought to life not only the time period but an indelible cast of characters, some of which serve as literary antecedents playing roles for more modern -- or perhaps I should say post-modern -- purposes, and it becomes unlikely that anyone reading this novel for the first time and on its own merits will find themselves disappointed.

Copyright © 2002 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction. In addition to his writing, he is pursuing masters degrees in information science as well as history at Indiana University.

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