Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague - Geraldine Brooks (Audio)


Are you intrigued with plagues? I am and always have been. It seems a morbid interest, and it makes me question my moral compass, still I am just filled with so many questions. Is this the hand of God? Why does the plague strike down entire families, but ignore their neighbors? How awful would it be to tuck your little ones in bed at night, knowing there wasn't a darned thing you could do to protect them?

When author and journalist Geraldine Brooks was traveling through the English countryside, she came across the small Derbyshire village of Eyam that, in 1665, self-imposed a quarantine to prevent the spread of the Black Plague from its inhabitants to nearby communities. Brooks couldn't get the story out of her head, and decided to make it a work of fiction firmly grounded by substantial historical fact.

Synopsis: Through the eyes of Anna Frith, a poor young widow with two small children, we are introduced to the small English town of Eyam in the year 1665. Anna works for the town rectory as a housekeeper, and details the lives of the local miners, the town healer, the drunks, her close friends, and her love for her sons. When a traveler rents a room from Anna, it seems to be a blessing for the extra income and the male influence for her boys. When he suddenly becomes ill with a fever and blisters, and quickly dies, an evil is unleashed on the town. Soon the sickness spreads to many in the town, and the town rector asks the townspeople to willingly quarantine themselves to protect the disease from spreading beyond the town limits.

From there, and over the next 14 months, we witness the shocking effects of isolation and fear on it's inhabitants. The healers are blamed for witchcraft and a mob mentality takes over. There is thievery, drunkenness, self-flagellation, suicide, and madness. At the same time, others step up to selflessly care for the ailing, take in orphaned children and bury the dead, relying on their faith to pull them through.

Once the plague has run its course, however, Anna must undergo even further tests of her strength and determination to survive...tests she never imagined she would have to face, but ultimately she is left with that the year was not only nightmarish, but filled with blessings and wonder.

My thoughts: I've heard of this book before, but I sat up and took notice when Jackie (Farm Lane Books) raved about it. Jackie is not one to go on about just any book, and while she warned of its intensity, I felt pretty sure I would like it.

The book certainly grabbed me from the very beginning, it wrapped its hands around my heart and squeezed...hard. The fear and despair experienced by these people couldn't have been more real and more devastating to me personally. I felt I was there, afraid to open my eyes and witness the next death. I was exhausted from nursing the sick, and trying to keep up with the work that was performed by 3/4 of the townspeople who are no longer alive. The characters were flawed and real, the scenarios completely believable. It was a pure study of humanity at its worst and best.

The prose is written in a formal English (I'm sorry, there is probably a name for it) that sounds appropriate for that period, but it wasn't hard to understand. The fact that this was generally a true story makes this book a solid entry in the historical fiction genre.

Did I have any complaints? As Jackie stated in her review, the ending went slightly off-course and was tied up a little too neatly, and I would agree that this was somewhat disconcerting, after all that horridness. Still, it was a nice contrast and prevented the book from finishing me off and sending me into a total depression. It was a nice little ray of hope.

A word about the audio production: Our narrator for this book was Josephine Bailey, a new-to-me voice. She has got an impressive resume, such as Pride and Prejudice (not the one I listened to unfortunately!), The Woman in White, Atonement, and The Secret Garden. She has a beautiful, melodic British accent, reminding me of a smoother Davina Porter. She was a pleasure to listen to.

4.5 out of 5 stars







30 comments:

Nymeth said...

I agree about the ending being off-course - and unfortunately the degree of disconnect between those last few chapters and the rest of the story ruined it a little bit for me. But I did really enjoy the first 3/4s or so, and I found Brooks' writing just beautiful.

lovely treez said...

Delighted to find another fan! I agree that the ending was slightly disappointing but she's a wonderful writer. Her non-fiction is rather good too.

Julie P. said...

I read this book many years ago based on a friend's recommendation and loved it. She is a gifted storyteller.

C.B. James said...

I did not like The People of the Book because it was all so 'neatly' plotted, so I've a feeling this one would not be good for me. But I do think the story, as you describe it, would be excellent for audio books. Might even be something I should check out.

If you're feeling a bit twisted and will to go 'off topic' a little, check out the Plague Song by Horrible Histories on YouTube. My 7th graders love it.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4KHlIWpyJrQ

bermudaonion said...

Wow, that sounds like quite a story. I love the fact that it was inspired by a true story.

farmlanebooks said...

I'm so pleased that you liked this one too! If only those last few chapters had been missed off this book would have been perfect. I'm pleased that this worked on audio as I was a bit unsure that the emotion would come across that way. Let me know if you find any other good plague books!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I have not read Brooks yet - I keep picking up her books and putting them down... I think it's the plots that somehow don't appeal to me...

caite said...

I must say that i do not share your fascination with plagues...but this sounds interesting and I am a sucker for a beautiful written book.

Zibilee said...

This is one of my most favorite books and I am so glad you liked it! I also have this weird fascination with the plague, and if you are interested, I could share a few titles with you that you probably would enjoy. One of them is Forever Amber, which is a really long book, but there is a plague scene near the middle. Also a great plague book is Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. All plague, all the time, and just such a heart wrenching read. If I come across any others, I will keep you in mind!

JoAnn said...

I loved this on audio, too, but had the same complaint about the ending. Her new book, Caleb's Crossing, will be out soon. It sounds like another winner.

Alyce said...

I am completely fascinated by plague/disaster stories, but have to agree with Nymeth's comment. The ended really did change my opinion of the book, which was very high up until the ending. I much preferred her novel People of the Book.

Meg said...

It's been many years since I read this one, but I still remember how traumatized I was by it! The descriptions -- especially of a deceased child still, um, lingering in one of the homes (don't want to spoil, but EEK!) -- have really stuck with me.

That being said, this book was incredibly well-written and engrossing... and I actually loved it, despite all the horrific happenings. Great review!

Amy said...

I have this book on my shelf but as I don't share your interest in plagues...natural disasters are more my thing!...I wasn't sure about it despitereading good things about Brooks. Your review has put me straight and made me realize I shouild read this book or at least 3/4 of it sooner rather than later.

Melissa said...

I find plague stories fascinating too! There is a HF message board I used to frequent and there was one gal who I think had read every plague story known to man, and this still ranked near the top of the list.

I've had it on my shelf forever (and I know I say that a lot!), so I might have to try the audio version instead.

Peppermint Ph.D. said...

I really enjoyed March by Brooks...The People of the Book is next...I'm disappointed to hear this one isn't as good as the others.

xalwaysdreamx said...

read this book for the first time a long time ago! My copy's all tattered, now =)

--Sharry

heidenkind said...

Old English?

Carrie K. said...

One of my very favorite works of historical fiction!

Jenners said...

If you like morbid, you've got to read the book I just reviewed. This sounds very intense and awful but really really good too.

Iliana said...

I read this book ages ago with a book group and we all pretty much loved it, except for the ending! It seems like that is usually the one complaint about this book. Makes you wonder if there were any rewrites to the ending or anything else like that.

I have her other book People of the Book on my shelves which I would love to get to one of these days.

Trisha said...

I do so like the morbid so I may have to give this one a try.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

you are a bit obsessed with plagues, aren't you!? I read BLINDNESS due to this ...

And, although I have YEAR OF WONDERS on my shelves, I have yet to read it. Send me a telepathic "you've GOTTA read this!" so I pick it up, please!

Matt said...

After reading People of the Book, in which Brooks attached meaning to her adopted Jewish heritage, I have decided to collect all her works and eventually read them. She an author who has a predilection on human interest stories. This book seems to belong to the same commendable line of work she has done.

Jenny said...

Wow, this sounds really good and I've never really paid attention to it until now! Sort of makes me think of the non-fiction book, Pox, that I've got coming up for review... the measures people go through to prevent the disease from spreading.

Darlene said...

This novel has been on my shelf for a while now. I really must read it!

Swapna said...

This is one I've been wanting to read for a long time. Maybe I'll get to it soon.

(yeah, right.)

Thanks for the review!!

Coffee and a Book Chick said...

I'm so glad you loved this one - Geraldine Brooks is one of my favorites after reading this one and People of the Book. Year of Wonders was absolutely beautifully told, amidst all the sadness.

Kathleen said...

As usual I can join you in your morbid fascinations. I have this book on my shelves at home and look forward to reading it.

The Bumbles said...

I really enjoyed her book March. I believe some people were disappointed in the direction that one went in towards the end but I liked it. I haven't read anything else from her but I will - I liked the way she takes a different angle on history.

Alice Teh said...

This is another book that has been sitting in my pile for the longest time. I'm glad to know the narrator's great.