Year of Wonders was Geraldine Brooks’s first novel. The Australian-born Brooks had been a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, covering conflicts in the Middle East and in Central Europe. Her first book, Nine Parts of Desire (1994), is a collection of firsthand accounts of the lives of women in the modern Middle East. Brooks says that these women, many of whom lived circumscribed lives and were forced into new leadership roles by various crises, were the inspiration for the character of Anna Firth.
Brooks had left journalism after being briefly jailed in Nigeria and turned her efforts to the Eyam story, which had caught her attention on a visit to England some years earlier. She had consulted with Derbyshire historians for this novel, but in her work, generally, she approaches historical fiction as a way of filling in the blanks in the records. The title of the novel, Year of Wonders, is drawn from John Dryden’s poem, “Annus Mirabilis” (1667; year of wonders or year of miracles), an account of London’s Great Plague (1665-1666) and Great Fire (1666). Anna’s wonders are on a smaller scale: her village.
Brooks uses historical records to address more timeless themes, such as strong women in a hostile community, friendship, and personal growth in crises. The least believable parts of the story are the true ones; the villagers really did agree to quarantine themselves, at the encouragement of their rector and his predecessor. In a similar but contrasting and wholly fictional story, Albert Camus’s La Peste (1947; The Plague, 1948), the quarantine is forced upon the residents of Oran (the same city where Anna’s journey ends). While Camus shows people giving in to their worst impulses—a more common historical response to the plague—Brooks portrays a population at its best, too good to be true.
Anna is not a person but a perfect character who sees all and understands all with her servant’s job and her intellectual’s mind, allowing her to explore Brooks’s themes in her narrative. Michael Mompellion has flaws and secrets not recorded in Eyam’s historical records, allowing him to address the question of lost faith. Faith is the ultimate casualty of the plague; in the end, Anna accepts that she has none. The novel suggests that faith is not necessary for survival, or for contentment.