Thursday, May 8, 2014

Year of Wonders - Geraldine Brooks

Year of Wonders
Another grad school pick coming your way today. It's a good one, I promise!

I have had a different Geraldine Brooks novel On Reserve since Will Schwalbe mentioned it in his memoir The End of Your Life Book Club. Because of that, I was pleased to find Year of Wonders on my required reading list for my Interdisciplinary Liberal Arts course. I figured if Brooks had written one winner, chances were decently good for another.

Year of Wonders was actually Brooks' first published novel. It became an international best seller and both the New York Times and Washington Post have honored it. And for good reason. 

The historical fiction novel takes readers back to the 17th century Plague in Britain. The protagonist, Anna Frith, lives in a small village with her two young sons. Her husband passed away in a mining accident, so she supports her family by serving as a housemaid for the local rector and his wife, Michael and Elinor Mompellion.

Anna also takes in boarders in her small home. This source of income, tragically, sets the story moving. A renting tailor catches Plague, presumably from the London cloth he receives for his work. As the epicenter of rippling water, the disease spreads from there. 

Brooks plays out the story of the little village as they isolate themselves from their neighbors and try to ride out the disease. She explores so many aspect of this unique scenario and truly dives into her characters.

For my grad class, we specifically talked about the relationship between religion and science, as seen in the book. The characters wrestle continually with their faith in response to the spreading plague. Brooks shows a variety of religious responses to tragedy, including superstitions of the time. This aspect added so much to the book and made it very relatable. No matter what era you live in, every human deals with the question of why bad things happen. Brooks handles this in such an elegant way.

In that same vein, Anna spends the book working through the realization that the world is not strictly good or evil. She befriends a local woman, Anys Gowdie, who uses natural remedies to heal and, eventually, is accused of being a witch. As Brooks writes, 
"Dark and light, dark and light, dark and light. That was how I had been taught to view the world. The Puritans who had ministered to us here had held that all actions and thoughts could be only one of two natures: godly and right, or Satanic and evil. But Anys Gowdie confounded such thinking."
The ending definitely surprised me. It seemed a bit out of step with the rest of the book, a point we discussed extensively in our class discussions. If you step back and see the characters as real people needed to move on with their lives after such a horrible time, it makes sense. Still, it feels a touch disconnected.

Geraldine Brooks writes beautifully. Her prose flows easily and yet offers plenty of challenges to her readers. The book is delightful, sorrowful, and so human. I highly recommend it and am looking forward to picking up more of Brooks work in the future.

Pages: 308
Date Completed: April 5, 2014

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