Year of Wonders

Recommendation: This is beautifully written and very topical

Where to read: Pick a rainy afternoon

Read with: A good cider

In brief: We are probably all about done with plagues and pestilence by now, but if by chance you are still game to read about one, this is would be my pick, for the writing if nothing else.

Year of Wonders is based on the true story of the small village of Eyam in Derbyshire in 1666, the year of the Great Fire of London and, topically, the last great resurgence of the Black Death in England. Faced with an outbreak of the plague, they decided to quarantine themselves from the neighbouring villages for over a year, keeping the rest of the county safe at horrible cost. Historically, the main figure in this saga was the local priest who convinced the village to stay in place but there was a note in the contemporaneous record that he had a maid and it is here that Brooks starts.

The central character is Anna Frith, a very young widow who takes in a London border. Things go rapidly downhill from there, but through the unspeakable tragedy Anna finds her independence and, ultimately, a way to transcend her puritan, village roots.

It’s a beautiful story and the historical setting is wonderfully portrayed. For all that, there is something slightly jarring about the end of the story – a step out of time into a more modern set of sensibilities, or a sort of feminist revisionism (entertaining as that is). Interestingly enough, the end comments from Brooks help explain this approach. She talks about her observations of conflict and wartime and refugees, and how women end up taking on roles they are not culturally or religiously supposed to play. Making the same assumptions about how a woman’s role might change in a historical period of upheaval and dislocation seems therefore quite sound (although I am still a little sceptical about the ending).

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