Year of Wonders

The Black Death that swept Continental Europe and England in the fourteenth century was not the only appearance of the plague in history. In 1666, a new outbreak devastated the mountain village of Eyam, northwest of London. Geraldine Brooks uses this real-life event as the catalyst for Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, a historical novel that may remind readers not only of Albert Camus’ The Plague, but also of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.

The plague that appears mysteriously in central England touches first a boarder at the home of Anna Frith, servant and friend of Elinor Mompellion. As it spreads, Anna, Elinor, and Elinor’s husband Michael, rector in the village, try to rally their neighbors to deal with the tragedy sensibly, praying to God but taking practical precautions such as burning infected clothing and supplies. Unfortunately, their efforts meet with mixed success, as others in the village are prone to believing that the devil’s curse is upon them. Some turn to the occult for answers; others simply succumb to the ravages of the disease. The Mompellions and Anna, first seen as pillars of strength, are soon objects of vilification and hatred. Then, as mysteriously as it appears, the plague runs its course, but not before it decimates the population and forever changes the lives of the principal protagonists.

Year of Wonders is a cross between a Victorian romance and a modern feminist tale. Anna, the novelist’s narrator, is a strong woman who demonstrates repeatedly that she can make her way in the world without men. The Mompellions appear to be the perfect couple, but both have dark secrets that plague their souls as fiercely as the bacillus virus does the bodies of other villagers. The novel’s supporting cast are vividly drawn, and the surprise ending seems neither forced nor implausible. Exceptionally well researched and deftly constructed, Year of Wonders is a work that deserves serious attention.