Year of Wonders is a story of the plague. It’s Geraldine Brooks’ first novel, written in 2001. It follows a small town in the seventeenth century which, when plague crops up in their community, decides that rather than run (and possibly spread it) they will quarantine themselves and wait it out. It’s historical fiction, a favorite genre of mine, and I found it an easy and interesting read though the subject material is quite heavy.
The novel asks questions about how people cope in high pressure situations. You can turn on each other, pull together, go mad, blame others, look to the past, put your energy into caring for others in the present, accept your situation, try to change your situation, pray, cry – a whole range of responses are explored in this novel. It means that even as person after person dies, this book isn’t monotonous and there are some big twists towards the end (though I was disappointed with the very last chapter).
The protagonist is a young widowed mother who works at the vicarage, learning from the pastor and his wife. The Puritan pastor is the one who convinces the town to quarantine themselves. He’s convinced that the plague is God’s discipline or testing although he loses this belief by the end of the novel. Lots of his energy is invested in penance which is interesting since he’s explicitly opposed to ‘papists’ (Roman Catholics). This theme popped up in the Protestant minister in The Poisonwood Bible too and recently in the film Oranges and Sunshine. I was reminded that our society still clings to the notion of atoning for sin or being able to make things right, or at least is interested in exploring the fruitfulness or futility of doing so.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.